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How the Plastic Pollution Triggers Estrogen Effect

Updated on May 23, 2017

What is estrogen

A group of hormones called estrogen plays an important role in reproductive process and growth or development of female sexual characteristics.

Estrogen also regulates our development, growth, metabolism, sexual functions, tissue functions and reproduction. It controls the way our bodies use food and the reaction of our bodies to emergencies together with our mood swings.

Estrogen circulates in the bloodstream. In women, it affects the breasts, uterus, brain, bone, liver, heart and other characteristic tissues.

A truck laden with waste plastic products in Shanghai.
A truck laden with waste plastic products in Shanghai. | Source

Estrogen in Plastic

When tested, about 70% of the plastic products were found positive for estrogen activity(EA). This became 95% when plastic was subjected to real-life conditions, such as in microwave and dishwashing. Most of the plastic products ranging from cups to food wraps, generally release chemicals that act and mimic like the sex hormone estrogen.

The EA exposure alters the structure of human cells, posing grave risks to infants, toddlers, and children.

In plastic, the most ubiquitous and controversial chemical, bisphenol A (called BPA) is the most dangerous chemical with estrogen activity. BPA is a colorless solid which is soluble in organic solvents but sparing soluble in water.

Russian chemist Aleksandr Dianin discovered BPA in 1891. Later on in the 1930s, the British chemist Charles E.Dodds identified BPA as an artificial estrogen. At that time BPA was used as an estrogen replacement for women or to enhance the growth of cattle and poultry.

Even the plastic marked as BPA-free also releases chemicals that act like the sex hormone estrogen.

The BPA is a synthetic estrogen.The plastic with BPA breaks down easily when washed, heated or stressed. This allows the chemical to leach into food and water thereby entering the human body.

The urine sample of 93% of Americans over the age of 6 was found to contain BPA. Americans have twice as much BPA in their bodies as the people of Canada. If there is no BPA in your body then you're not living in the modern world.

BPA is used to make certain plastics and epoxy resins. It has been in commercial use since 1957. Around 3.6 million tons of BPA is annually used by the manufacturers. Being clear and tough the BPA-based plastic is used to make a variety of common consumer and industrial goods like baby bottles, water bottles, sports equipment, CDs, DVDs and water pipes etc.

As a coating on the inside of many foods and beverage cans, the epoxy resins containing BPA is used. Thermal paper used in sales receipts also contains BPA.

BPA shows properties like hormones and therefore raises the concerns about the suitability of its use in consumer products and food containers.

Canada was the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance. The United States, European Union, and Canada have banned the use of BPA in products aimed at infants and toddlers like water and milk bottles etc.

No Plastic is Safe

There is in reality, no safer plastic. It is difficult to tell which plastic will leach estrogen chemicals into food. In some samples, the BPA-free products released chemicals containing more EA than BPA plastic products.

A plastic item contains anywhere from 5 to 20 chemicals, some of which are additives. These chemicals are incorporated into the plastic polymer but are not bound to the structure. The materials and additives can leach out of plastics and resin. The baby bottles are commonly made of BPA-based polycarbonate plastics.

To avoid this problem the plastic could be reformulated without BPA at any great expense.

Vegetable oil in plastic bags for sale in Thailand.
Vegetable oil in plastic bags for sale in Thailand. | Source

Exposure to BPA

Along with diet the BPA exposure also occurs through the air and through skin absorption. In thermal and carbonless copy paper the free BPA is found in high concentrations which are more available for exposure than BPA found in resin or plastic.

Thermal paper is used in receipts, event and cinema tickets label, airline tickets, etc. About 1 microgram of BPA gets transferred to the forefinger and the middle finger during dry contact with a thermal paper. On wet or greasy fingers the amount is 10 times more. The presence of BPA on fingers remains for about 2 hours after exposure.

Thermal receipts placed in a wallet for 24 hours, increase the concentration of BPA in contact in paper currency. Therefore paper money becomes the secondary source of exposure.

During the recycling process, other papers like toilet paper, newspaper, and napkin etc, get contaminated with BPA. The free BPA readily gets transferred to the skin, and the residues on hands and fingers get ingested.

Fetal and early childhood exposure occurs in fetuses and young children exposed to BPA. This causes secondary sexual changes in growth, brain and behavior changes, or immune disorders

Children are more prone to BPA exposure than adults. In adults, the BPA gets eliminated from the body through detoxification in the liver but in infants and children this process is not fully developed. Thus the children are not able to clear BPA from their body.

The most exposed are the infants fed from polycarbonate bottles because they can consume daily up to 13 micrograms of BPA per kg of body weight.


Effects on Children and Infants

Fetal and early childhood exposure occurs in fetuses and young children exposed to BPA. This causes secondary sexual changes in growth, brain and behavior changes, or immune disorders

Children are more prone to BPA exposure than adults. In adults, the BPA gets eliminated from the body through detoxification in the liver but in infants and children, this process is not fully developed. Thus the children are not able to clear BPA from their body.

The most exposed are the infants fed from polycarbonate bottles because they can consume daily up to 13 micrograms of BPA per kg of body weight.

Health hazards of Bisphenol A

Bisphenol A or BPA is an endocrine disruptor and leads to negative health effects.

Prenatal exposure to BPA causes physical and neurological problems in later life.

The safety levels fixed for humans by various Regulatory authorities are being debated due to new scientific discoveries.

BPA may cause obesity which has been proved to be the source of numerous and grave health effects.

BPA negatively affects immune functions of the people under the age of 18 years.

Even a nanomolar dosage of BPA could induce significant effects on memory processes because it interferes with the connections of those brain cell which are vital to memory, learning, understanding and mood.

BPA binds the receptor of thyroid hormone and selectively affects its functions.

In the case of some tumors, the BPA reduces sensitivity to chemotherapy treatment.

The fractional concentrations of BPA are enough to produce negative reactions on human testicles. An extreme estrogen sensitivity causes fertility problems, breast cancer, advanced puberty, altered mammary development and reproductive function and a variety of hormone-related cancers.

Allergic sensitivity and bronchial inflammation are increased by a little exposure to BPA, that is about 10 microgram per ml in drinking water.

The urine of 16 weeks pregnant women at 16 containing higher BPA concentrations was found to be linked with wheezing which is a symptom of asthma in their babies.

Urinary concentrations of BPA causes stress and inflammation in postmenopausal women.

It externalizes behavior of two-year old children, especially the female children if their mothers have urinary concentrations of BPA.

The studies have correlated recurrent miscarriage with BPA serum concentrations. The mother's urine with high levels of BPA during pregnancy scored worse on anxiety and hyperactivity tests.

BPA concentrations in urine also alters hormone levels in men and reduces male sexual functions.

In BPA factories, the Chinese workers were found to have reduced sexual desire and overall dissatisfaction with their sex life. These workers were prone to have erectile dysfunction four times and ejaculation difficulties seven times. Within a year of their employment, they reported reduced sexual functions and the problem was aggravated by higher exposure.

Consumer products in plastic bags are environmental hazards
Consumer products in plastic bags are environmental hazards | Source

Environmental Risks

Over one million pounds of BPA is annually released into the environment annually. The potential source of environmental contamination is the leaching of BPA from plastic and metal waste in the landfills.

The studies prove that BPA affects growth, reproduction, and development of aquatic organisms and the fish is the most sensitive species among freshwater organisms. The exposure levels lower than acute toxicity cause endocrine-related effects on aquatic life.

Another serious environmental contamination caused by BPA is the interference with nitrogen fixation at the roots of leguminous plants.

Irrespective of the type of resin, BPA-containing products, and almost all commercially available plastic products leach the chemicals having genuinely detectable endocrine activity. Surprisingly in some cases, the BPA-free plastic released higher EA chemicals as coBPA-containing plastic products.

Bisphenol S (BPS) shares similar problems like BPA. Even at extremely low levels of exposure the BPS disrupts the balance of estrogen hormone.

A significant amount of BPS is contained in the receipt paper, in 87 percent samples of currency paper and 52 percent of the recycled paper. The people therefore may be absorbing 19 times more BPS through their skin than the amount of BPA they absorb, when both are used widely.

Safer Plastic

  • Food wraps, cooking oil bottles and plumbing pipes are made of Polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Do not cook food in them and use wax paper instead of plastic wrap.
  • Clear plastic soda and water bottles made of Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET) are generally considered safe to use but don't reuse them.
  • Opaque milk jugs, detergent, toiletry and juice bottles or butter tubs made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) can be safely used.
  • Grocery bags, food wraps, squeezable bottles and bread bags are made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE). They are considered safer for use.
  • Polypropylene is used in yogurt cups, cloudy finish water bottles, medicine bottles, ketchup, syrup bottles, and straws are also safer for use.
  • Disposable foam plates, cups and packing materials are made from Polystyrene or Styrofoam. Do not cook food in these plastics.
  • PLA (polymer Polylactide) is a plastic made from plants that are corn or sugarcane. It does not contain BPA.
  • Use glass containers in the microwave.

Steps to be taken

It is impossible to completely avoid all plastic products.To minimize the exposure to BPA -

  • Use "BPA-free" baby bottles.
  • Use your own glass, steel, or ceramic water bottle.
  • Do not use discarded, scratched and worn plastic.
  • Use as little plastic as possible, especially in pregnancy.
  • Never refill the water bottles they are meant to be used once.
  • Extreme heat and cooling for plastics products should be avoided.
  • Reduce intake of canned food.Never wrap plastic around food items.
  • Don't let the plastic containers to come in contact with the heat and the sun.
  • Buy fresh vegetables and pack them in your own plastic-free containers.
  • Do not put baby bottles and other plastic products in dishwashers or microwaves.
  • The processed foods in grocery store generally come in plastic packaging. So avoid it.
  • Avoid handling carbonless copy cash register receipts and never recycle it. Recycling receipts with BPA can spread the BPA to other products.
  • Never cook food in plastic containers. Don't use roasting or steaming bags because the plastic residues leach into food when heated in a microwave oven.
  • Utensils made of steel, porcelain, and enamel coated metal are the best for food and beverages, especially for hot food or drink.
  • Storage material made from glass, ceramic and stainless steel are the best. They can be put on the stove without any harm or can be used in fridge and freezer.
  • Reusable shopping bags eliminate the use of plastics. Because plastic bags can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into your food items.
  • The water kept in a plastic bottle, while travelling in a vehicle is very harmful. The repeated jerks and the heat generated inside help the plastic to leach out release toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. This increases the levels of dioxin in the body, which is found in the tissues of breast cancer.

© 2013 Sanjay Sharma


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    • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

      Sanjay Sharma 7 months ago from Mandi (HP) India

      Thanks Stella Kaye for the visit and the comment. You are absolutely right. We should minimize the use of plastic products.

    • Stella Kaye profile image

      Stella Kaye 7 months ago from UK

      A very informative article. Good advice in avoiding plastic but unfortunately the plastic producers are still producing the stuff at an alarming rate of 300 million tons per year. Less than ten percent is recycled. As much as eight to twelve million tons ends up in the oceans each year where it eventually breaks down into smaller pieces so it never really goes away.