Why Are Plastics Harmful?

An Overview of Why Plastics Are Unhealthy For You and Your Home

As you gulp down that glass of water or bite into your plastic-wrapped sandwich you could be consuming plastic without even knowing it. And while some plastics are less toxic than others, there are a few harmful plastics which could be threatening to rob you of your good health - even if only a little at a time.

Major environmental concerns with harmful plastics

Anyone who has walked along the beach knows how pervasive plastic litter can be in our environment, but having junked plastic lying around our wild spaces isn’t the biggest of our concerns. Let’s just touch briefly on why plastics are a concern for our planet:

  • Dangerous oil exploration and extraction
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Litter on land and in the sea
  • Non-biodegradable solid waste
  • Reliance on foreign fossil fuels
  • Toxic pollution - air, water, and soil
  • Water usage and toxification during manufacturing

The most harmful plastics you can buy

When it comes to harmful plastics in your life, there are four things you should avoid if at all possible to protect your health and that of your family:

  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic #3: Dioxins, which are created as a byproduct of the manufacturing of PVC which is composed partly of chlorine, are the biggest health and environmental challenge of PVC plastics. Dioxins are now ubiquitous in our food supply and are highly toxic, leading to developmental and reproductive disease, immune system damage, and cancer.[1] Plastic #7 can also contain plasticizers like phthalates which are also harmful to human health. Avoid PVC for storing food (i.e. plastic wrap), in children’s toys, and in any other product you come into contact with on a daily basis.
  • Polycarbonate plastic #7: When plastic #7 polycarbonate containers are coated with bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that is linked to many health problems including cancer, endocrine disruption, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and miscarriages, it is a very harmful plastic to have in your life. Avoid polycarbonate plastics to store food or beverages.
  • Non-stick coatings: Like those popularized by Teflon cookware, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) plastics are very harmful. When heated to high temperatures above ≥260°C (like leaving an empty frying pan on a lit stove by accident), PTFE fumes can lead to serious injury or death.[2] Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is used when processing PTFE and is also implicit in human health problems like cancer when heated to extreme tempratures.[3]
  • Polystyrene: Some studies have shown that styrene from polystyrene food containers can migrate from the foam into the food or beverage, posing health problems for those consuming the product.[4] So stay away from styrene coffee cups, disposable plates, take out containers, and leftover clamshells to protect yourself from this poison.

If you have any of these plastics in your kitchen or your storage room, find ways to recycle them (our guide to plastics recycling numbers will get you on the right track) and then work at weeding them out of our life by avoiding them when shopping.



1  Dioxins and their effects on human health. (2010, May). Retrieved July 7, 2010, from World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/index.html

2  Fatal acute pulmonary oedema after inhalation of fumes from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). (1997). Retrieved July 7, 2010, from European Respiratory Journal: http://www.ersj.org.uk/cgi/reprint/10/6/1408.pdf

3  The Safe Use of Cookware. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2010, from Health Canada: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/prod/cook-cuisinier-eng.php

4  Survey of Benzene in Food Contact Plastics. (1994). Retrieved July 7, 2010, from Food Standards Agency - UK: http://archive.food.gov.uk/maff/archive/food/infsheet/1994/no35/35ben.htm

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