Between food storage containers, bottles and non-breakable dishes, plastic is a common item in most families' kitchens. However, there are growing concerns that this common household material could expose children to harmful chemicals.
According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), there is evidence that children may be unknowingly ingesting harmful elements from certain food additives and packaging materials including plastic.
As dangerous as this sounds, Soumya Adhikari, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, says there are simple steps every parent can take to keep their child safe.
How do plastic chemicals affect the body?
Chemical exposure can interfere with the body's natural hormone functions, Dr. Adhikari explains.
"The way our body works is that there's a lot of internal communication between different organ systems through hormones, and many of those systems are tightly regulated," he says. "The potential for interference in that communication process has been a concern with exposure to many things. Now, we're learning that exposure could possibly result from things we do every day, such as washing our dishes or heating up food."
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals could predispose children to health issues, such as:
- Thyroid problems
- Obesity or gaining weight more quickly
- Reproductive dysfunction
Exposure to the same amount of chemicals affects children more than adults. This is due to children's small sizes, rapidly growing bodies and developing organ systems.
Do plastic chemicals have a lasting health impact?
As technology advances, we are learning more about how these chemicals affect the body. Dr. Adhikari says the risk of repeated chemical exposure is one that accumulates over years rather than manifesting in immediate symptoms.
"Pediatricians may not see a significant number of kids with problems related to exposure," says Dr. Adhikari. "But if there is a simple change a parent can make that could have long-term health benefits, why wouldn't you want to be informed?"
Which plastics are safe?
The AAP cautions against the use of materials with bisphenols, such as BPA or BPS (a BPA replacement), in plastic containers or metal can liners. These can mirror estrogen, which may lead to disruptions in normal pubertal development, decrease fertility, increase body fat and/or affect the nervous and immune systems.
Also, beware of phthalates in plastic and vinyl tubes used in food processing. These may affect male genital development, increase childhood obesity and contribute to cardiovascular disease.
In addition, use these toxic plastic sources with caution:
- BPA-free plastic bottles
- Canned foods, drinks or baby formulas
- Costume jewelry or other dress-up fashion items
- Teething rings
If in doubt, the AAP recommends checking your recycling codes for plastics. Avoid codes on plasticware with 3, 6 or 7 – unless they are labeled as "bio-based" or "greenware."
How do I limit my child's chemical exposure?
Here are a few suggestions to keep your children safe from chemical exposure:
- Do not microwave food or liquids in plastic containers
- Avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher
- Opt for non-plastic, microwave and dishwasher-safe containers when possible
- Routinely update your storage containers, as age and repeated use naturally breaks down plastics
- Serve more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed meats
- Clean all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled
These simple actions may set your child up for a healthier future. The best way to keep your child safe from plastic chemicals is to be aware. Experts agree you should read all labels, do your research and ask your pediatrician questions.
With childhood obesity, diabetes and other endocrine disorders on the rise, our nationally ranked pediatric endocrinologists at Children's Health are here to help. Learn more about our program and services.