On February 15, 2017 the UK television channel BBC2 aired a report entitled “Should I worry about plastics?” in the scope of its program “Trust me I’m a doctor.” The report took on the issue of chemical exposure from plastic food packaging and other plastic items. Scientific studies have linked certain chemicals used in plastics to health problems including cancer, obesity, diabetes, and interference with fetal development in the womb.

Medical journalist and presenter of the report, Michael Mosley, conducted a personal experiment to find out what chemicals from plastic packaging enter the body via food. He fasted for 24 hours and then ate a meal comprised of food that would have come into contact with plastics during processing and that was packaged in plastic: Fizzy drinks, processed curry, tinned fruit and vegetable, jellies and ice-cream. Mosley provided urine samples before the fasting, after the fasting, and three hours after the meal. The urine samples were analyzed at the Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, for levels of the endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) bisphenol A (BPA, CAS 80-05-7) and different phthalates by measuring these chemicals’ metabolites. The analysis showed that Mosley’s BPA and phthalate levels were in line with the UK population’s average before he did the fasting. The levels fell after the fasting and started to rise again after the meal of plastic packaged foods. Notably, the levels of low molecular weight phthalates did not change as significantly as the levels of high molecular weight phthalates. “This is because exposure to low molecular weight phthalates is predominantly through personal care products,” the BBC2’s summary of the report explains.

Mosley consulted with two leading scientists to discuss the levels of BPA and phthalates found in his urine and whether they are of concern for health. Nick Plant is a toxicologist at the University of Surrey, UK, and also member of the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT), an independent body advising the UK Food Standards Agency. Plant acknowledged that EDCs like phthalates have been shown to affect the endocrine system in high doses. However, he highlighted that the levels humans are exposed to have not been proven to cause harmful effects. He also noted that the human body can cope with subtle fluctuations in hormone levels. Andreas Kortenkamp, professor in human toxicology at Brunel University London, UK, pointed out that about 5% of the population have levels of BPA and phthalates in their bodies that are 100-fold higher than the average, for currently unknown reasons. He expressed concern about pregnant women with such elevated EDC levels because at the fetal stage, hormones program development and phthalates have been shown to negatively impact male fetuses. Kortenkamp therefore urged that regulators take more action to protect those who are most vulnerable and sensitive to EDCs.

Mosley concluded that the average adult probably does not need to worry about exposure to chemicals from plastics. Even though exposure cannot be avoided completely, measures can be taken to reduce plastic use and chemical exposure. Mosley recommended starting with simple steps “like bringing plastic bags to the shops and using ceramic and reusable cups instead of disposable ones.”

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BBC2 (2017). “Should I worry about plastics?