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What You Need to Know About Plastics

Our homes are filled with plastics, and most of us don’t really know what they’re made of — or whether they’re safe. We discuss the safe uses of plastics and the better alternatives.


The toxicity of plastics is not fully understood or adequately tested. What we do know is that most plastics contain chemical additives to change the quality of the plastic for its intended use (examples are to make it softer or resistant to UV light). Some of these ingredients or additives we know are harmful, like the plastics chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) and the plastic softeners called phthalates. These two are increasingly linked to health effects like brain and behavior changes, cancer, and reproductive system damages.  Chemicals in plastic can migrate, or leach, into the food and water they contain. While the amount may be small, it has not been proven safe.   


Because plastics are ubiquitous today, choose them carefully to minimize your exposures. Avoiding them altogether isn’t practical, so we suggest you focus on those that are likely to come into contact with your mouth — the most common way chemicals in plastic consumer products enter the body. Plastic chemicals touch your mouth in a number of ways: from your hands and your food and drink. This is especially important for young children, who frequently put hands and objects in their mouths.

Plastics to avoid:

Stay away from toys marked with a “3” or “PVC” (PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, commonly called vinyl). PVC is often mixed with phthalates, a toxic additive that makes plastic more flexible. While phthalates were recently banned in new children’s toys, they may be in toys made before February 2009 when the ban went into effect, as well as in shower curtains, inflatable beach toys, raincoats and toys for children older than 12.

Avoid polycarbonate containers (sometimes marked with a #7 or “PC”), especially for children’s food and drinks. These plastics are rigid and transparent, like plastic food storage containers and water bottles, among other things. Trace amounts of BPA can migrate from these containers, particularly if used for hot food or liquids. Soft or cloudy-colored plastic does not contain BPA.

A recent study from Harvard University found that college students drinking their cold drinks from polycarbonate bottles had 93% more BPA in their bodies than during the weeks that they drank liquids from other containers.

We recommend the use of glass over plastics. When you have no choice, plastics marked with a #1, 2, 4, or 5 don’t contain BPA and may be better choices.

How to handle plastics:


When you do use plastics, handle them safely. It is best that you:

Don’t microwave food or drinks in plastic containers — even if they claim to be “microwave safe.” Heat can break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink. Microwaves heat unevenly, creating hot spots where the plastic is more likely to break down.

Use plastic containers for cool liquids only — not hot.

Don’t reuse single-use plastics. They can break down and release plastics chemicals when used repeatedly.

Avoid old, scratched plastic water bottles. Exposures to plastics chemicals may be greater when the surface is worn down.

Wash plastics on the top rack of the dishwasher, farther from the heating element, or by hand. This will reduce wear and tear.


For the kids

When bottle feeding infants, choose glass or BPA-free baby bottles with a clear silicone nipple.

Give your baby natural teethers like frozen washcloths or natural, uncoated wood.

Plastic teethers could have harmful additives that leach when chewed.

Look for toys made of natural materials, like wool, cotton, and uncoated wood.

In the kitchen

Ceramic or glass food containers (like Pyrex) are better to store and heat your food and drink.

When using an electric mixer, choose glass or Pyrex instead of plastic to avoid chipping bits of plastic into your food.

Carry a glass or stainless steel water bottle without a plastic or “epoxy” lining.

Cover food in the microwave with a paper towel instead of plastic wrap.

Environmental Working Group

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