Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere!

Using plastic products comes at a cost; some chemicals used in plastics are linked to negative health and environmental effects.
Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere! - Articles

Updated: September 15, 2017

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere!

Young, developing children in a child care facility are surrounded with plastic toys, baby bottles, and sippy cups, which can potentially expose them to harmful chemicals.

Understanding how all plastics are made, what the chemical components are, and how they can release toxins is very complicated. However, there are several chemicals common in plastics that we know are of particular concern: phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and styrene.

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) can be found in soft pliable plastic toys including teething rings, dolls, and nap mats. This class of chemicals improves the flexibility of plastics, and is used most commonly in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics. Phthalates are also common in air fresheners, lotions, cosmetics and other personal care products and can be used to bind fragrances to products. Thus phthalates can be inhaled when breathing in fumes or fragrances, ingested when children chew on plastic toys, and absorbed through the skin with the use of lotions and other similar products. Exposure to phthalates is linked to hormonal disruptions, birth defects, developmental problems, asthma, early puberty, and some cancers. PVC plastics are labeled with a #3 recycling code and have either "PVC" or "V" written under the recycling symbol.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a chemical used to manufacture a hard, clear plastic called polycarbonate plastic. Products such as baby bottles, sippy cups and water bottles can be made from this type of plastic and can leach BPA into food and liquids. BPA can also be found in the epoxy lining of canned foods. Most exposures to BPA occur through ingestion although dermal contact can result in exposure as well. BPA mimics estrogen and disrupts hormones. Exposure to BPA is linked to miscarriages, birth defects, early puberty, prostate cancer, breast cancer, hyperactivity and aggressiveness. Polycarbonate plastics are labeled with a #7 recycling code and may or may not have "PC" written beneath the recycling symbol. Often just the word "Other" appears below the recycling symbol.

Styrene chemicals are found in polystyrene plastic products such as Styrofoam containers and cups, egg cartons and non-transparent plastic silverware. They can leach into food products especially when the plastic is heated. In animal studies, styrene adversely affects kidney, liver, stomach and red blood cells. Long-term exposure to styrene chemicals can be toxic to the brain and nervous system. Exposure to styrene can also occur from off-gassing of building materials, secondhand cigarette smoke and auto exhaust fumes. Polystyrene plastic products have a #6 recycling code and "PS" below the recycling symbol.

  • How do you protect the children in your care from harmful chemicals found in plastics?
  • When heating food or liquid in the microwave, use glass containers and cover with a paper towel. Never heat or microwave food in any type of plastic container nor cover it with a plastic lid or plastic wrap while heating. "Microwave safe" means it won't melt in the microwave. It does not mean it won't leach chemicals into the food or liquid.
  • Choose plastic products with #4, #5, #1 or #2 recycling codes.
  • Avoid plastics with #3, #6 or #7 recycling codes whenever possible.
  • Purchase plastic products that are manufactured after Feb 10, 2009. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2009 establishes limits of phthalates allowed in products specifically designed for children. Three phthalate compounds are now permanently banned and three additional compounds are banned while more testing is being done. While labeling on these products won't necessarily say "phthalate-free," products manufactured after this date must comply with the new standards.
  • Choose plastic products with a #7 recycling code carefully. BPA is not regulated under the CPSIA, so be sure to purchase hard plastic items with the #7 recycling code that are labeled as "BPA-free." The #7 recycling code can be a bit tricky to decipher. Years ago, most #7 plastics were made of polycarbonate plastic, but today other new types of plastics are also labeled with this code. New plastics such as polyactide plastics (PLA) and bio-based plastics fall under the #7 recycling code but are safer choices that polycarbonate plastics. These newer plastics have "PLA" or "BPA-free" beneath the recycling symbol.

For more information on choosing safer plastics and plastic toys, please see the attached factsheet from the Children's Environmental Health Network's Eco-Healthy Child Care Program. Be sure to check out the website links at the end of the fact sheet for more in-depth information about plastics and what the different recycling codes mean.