promised the world that they would change the way people lived through science.
Plastics: they’re in everything these days, and avoiding them completely is
next to impossible. So which types are relatively safe and which are the cancer
causing plastics to avoid?
This is a common question that health-minded folks are
increasingly asking as they dig through their pantries and wonder whether or
not they should keep drinking water out of plastic bottles, or consume meal
leftovers stored in plastic containers. It’s a battle of convenience versus
toxicity, but one that science can help mediate.
The Society of the
Plastics Industry (SPI) created a classification system back in 1988 that
differentiates between the seven most commonly used plastics in consumer
products. These include the following, which can be identified on the bottoms
of plastic containers inside a triangular recycling insignia:
1: PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate)
2: HDPE (high-density polyethylene)
3: PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
4: LDPE (low-density polyethylene)
5: PP (polypropylene)
6: PS (polystyrene, or styrofoam)
7: Other (includes polycarbonate and polylactide)
Each of these plastic
types comes with its own set of risks, but some are far safer than others. The
first category, PETE or PET, is a common plastic material often used to store
beverages. It’s considered a higher-risk plastic intended for single use only
because it can potentially leach heavy metals and other chemicals into fluid.
German researchers discovered back in 2009 that PET plastic is
much like the infamous bisphenol-A (BPA) chemical in that it can interfere with
proper hormone expression and production. The consequences of such exposure, if
left unchecked, can increase one’s risk of developing cancer.
The third category, PVC, also poses an elevated risk of cancer
and other health issues. Often used in plastic food wrapping, cooking oil
containers, and toys for both animals and pets, PVC is classified by the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a “major concern” when it comes to
Then there’s category 6, polystyrene, which is recognized as a
possible human carcinogen. Also known by the brand name Styrofoam, this plastic
material is a staple in to-go cups and takeout containers, and studies have
linked it to reproductive health problems. Research out of Harvard University
suggests exposure to polystyrene may cause abnormal pulmonary function,
chromosomal damage, and various types of cancer. As of July 1, 2015, New York
City banned polystyrene or Styrofoam containers.
With HDPE and LDPE If You Must Use Plastic
Your best bet is to use only #2 (HDP or HDPE) and #4 (LDPE)
plastics to minimize your risk of health problems. HDPE plastic is most
commonly used in milk cartons (the semi-transparent, whitish kind) and
detergent bottles, while LDPE is often used in shrink wrap, plastic bags, and
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) also contends that
#5 (PP) plastic is a safer option as well, however it must be noted that a
survey conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that
supposedly “microwave-safe” food packaged in #5 PP still contained leached BPA.