By Kelly Rondeau
Green Right Now

It’s the holiday season, and along with the many joys that are associated with this fun time of year – cooking, baking, parties with friends and family – comes a lurking environmental problem: Toxic chemicals in everyday plastics. Plastics that seem to be everywhere in our holiday midst — in the packaging of toys, the toys themselves, our food packaging, in our holiday leftover storage containers, in plastic wrap, in water bottles — and the list goes on.

Many valid health concerns have been raised about poisonous chemicals present in our everyday plastics, and the headlines about these toxins leaching into our food are frightening. A recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation found, for instance, that food containers labeled as “microwave safe” leached BPA when heated. (See our report, “BPA turns up in ‘microwave safe’ products“.)

Just this fall, a scientific advisory panel set up specifically to review the Food and Drug Administration’s assessment of Bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic additive, concluded that the agency had ignored scientific evidence and used flawed methods when determining that it was safe.

The FDA had long said that the plastic, widely used in making clear plastic polycarbonate baby bottles and in the epoxy lining of aluminum food cans, was not harmful to the public. But the panel of scientists from government and academic circles concluded that the FDA did not take into consideration the many studies that have linked the plastic to prostate cancer, diabetes and other major health problems, according to a Washington Post report.

With headlines like these, no doubt many people are mistrustful about plastics and their labeling. The findings raise many questions: Are the plastic containers that our food comes in leaching chemicals into our systems as they are frozen or cooked? What about storage containers being dishwasher and microwave safe; can they be heated up at all? And when I’m ready to toss plastics, where do they go? Do they get recycled?

These questions are legitimate. But slowdown. No need to panic. There are ways to decode the current numbering system used to label plastics, and experts with advice on how to safely use plastics.

Look for BPA-free

“The measured amounts of chemicals found in humans derived from plastics is found to be well below levels considered to be harmful,” says Steve Russell, the Managing Director of the Plastics Division of The American Chemistry Council. “Evidence shows it (chemicals in plastics) to be safe, but, should government change their stance, then we make changes and comply.”

The American Chemistry Council, founded in 1872, represents the many companies that make plastic products. The ACC’s primary concern is to research and steer initiatives that serve communities and customers, and an extensive list of member companies follow their guidelines and also meet federal regulations.

Many of these companies now offer BPA-free products and provide information on what toxins (if any) are in their plastics.

Rubbermaid and Tupperware, two popular plastics manufacturers in the market, are both a part of the American Chemistry Council.

Rubbermaid provides extensive listings of their products that contain BPA, as well as lists of those that are BPA-free, so buyers can make their own decisions. (The number of BPA-free products, like those pictured, left, exceed those with BPA. The bowls pictured at the top of the story contain BPA.)

Tupperware has taken an aggressive response to market concerns about BPA and also produced a line of BPA-Free products that are listed on their site.

Still, it wasn’t the ACC that sounded the alarm about BPA and brought about all this transparency, but a consortium of health watch groups. Early in 2008, the Environmental Health Fund called for a moratorium on using the plastic in baby products after studies showed that heating polycarbonate plastic caused it to release BPA into the food or liquid being contained. As reported in US News & World Report, BPA can affect the delicate hormonal systems of developing babies and children, with studies linking it to the feminization of boys and a potential higher risk of breast cancer for girls.