- PFAS, BPA, BPS, PVC, and PBDEs are dangerous chemicals used in the production of plastics.
- Many of these chemicals build up in the environment (and in human bodies), causing a host of problems.
- You can cut back your exposure to these chemicals in a variety of ways, but the most positive overall change would be cutting back or eliminating your use of plastics.
PFAS, BPA, BPS, PVC, PBDE: Acronyms Explained
Plastic is a problem. And it’s not just because we produce too much of it and don’t recycle enough of it. Plastic products are also releasing a wide range of toxic chemicals into our environment – chemicals that then make their way into our bodies!
How do we know which chemicals to look out for? Here’s a quick primer on the worst offenders:
PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS doesn’t refer to just a single chemical; it’s an entire group of man-made chemicals that are often called “forever chemicals” due to their resistance to environmental degradation. (In layman’s terms, that means they take thousands of years – if not longer – to break down.)
PFAS have been in use since the 1940s. Many PFAS are oil, water, and heat resistant, which has made them a popular choice for a variety of consumer and industrial products; they’re found in products such as food packaging, nonstick pans, cleaning products, paints, fabrics, furniture, cosmetics, and adhesives.
Most people have already been exposed to PFAS, and that’s bad news. Because PFAS don’t break down easily, they tend to accumulate in the human body over time (and in our animal friends, too.) While studies are still being conducted, preliminary research suggests that PFAS can cause serious health problems such as thyroid dysfunction, decreased birth weights, suppressed immune function, liver damage, and even cancer.
The good news is that several states have already banned PFAS from food packaging and a federal ban may soon follow. While that’s certainly a step in the right direction, you should still take additional precautions to protect your and your family’s health, such as:
- Try to avoid pre-packaged foods
- Cook at home instead of purchasing fast food
- Don’t use nonstick cookware
- Only purchase personal care products that are free from PFAS
- Avoid clothes, furniture, carpets, and other goods that are advertised as stain-resistant – look for those that are PFAS-free instead
The acronym BPA stands for bisphenol A, a chemical that’s used to manufacture polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. BPA is present in many everyday items such as plastic dinnerware, beverage containers, and the lining of food cans. It can also be found in some toys, automobile parts, safety equipment, and dental sealants.
Most human exposure to BPA comes through food and beverage containers that contain the chemical – and from the look of things, our exposure has been widespread; it’s estimated that more than 90% of people in the United States carry BPA residue in their bodies.
Why does this matter? Because BPA is a synthetic estrogen that’s disruptive to our hormone systems; exposure to this substance can increase the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity, metabolic dysfunction, infertility, type-2 diabetes, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
While the United States did ban BPA is some infant and children’s products, it’s still approved for use in food packaging to this day. To limit your exposure to BPA, you should:
- Cut back on your use of canned goods – buy fresh or frozen instead.
- Don’t put plastics in the microwave or dishwasher; heat degrades them, allowing BPA to leach into foods
- Check your plastics; those marked with a recycle code of 3 or 7 may contain BPA
- Find alternatives to plastics like glass, porcelain, stainless steel, or even plant-based products
BPS is the acronym for bisphenol S which, as you can guess by the name, is closely related to bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical is widely used in thermal receipt paper but it’s most controversial use is as a replacement for BPA in consumer products; many of the products that are now labelled as “BPA-free” contain BPS.
Like BPA, BPS is also a known endocrine disruptor. And, unfortunately, BPS might be even worse than the chemical cousin it’s replacing; in addition to all the health problems associated with BPA exposure, BPS can also inhibit heart function.
Because BPS is being used as a replacement for BPA, the tips for avoiding them are similar. The best way to limit your exposure to these (and other) dangerous chemicals is to find alternatives to plastics whenever possible.
Known for its versatility, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one of the most widely used plastics in existence. PVC - also known as vinyl - can be fashioned into a wide array of shapes with various consistencies. It’s commonly found in building materials, children’s toys, pipes, packaging, and hospital supplies.
Despite its versatility, PVC has earned a terrible reputation; Greenpeace even named it “the single most environmentally damaging type of plastic.” What makes PVC so awful? Well, for starters, throughout its lifecycle – from production to disposal - PVC leaches mercury, dioxins, and phthalates into the environment. It also contains known carcinogens that cause a variety of cancers including those of the liver, brain, and blood.
Humans are routinely exposed to PVC components through their environment – it’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Exposure is especially high for those who live and work around factories using PVC during production. The pervasiveness of PVC makes it a bit harder to avoid. But there are a few key ways you can limit your exposure:
- Don’t purchase products made from vinyl, like inflatable toys, shower curtains, and flooring. Look for PVC-free versions instead.
- Avoid any plastics that have the number three recycle symbol on the bottom; those contain PVC.
- Purchase an air purifier to remove airborne contaminants.
PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are a class of flame retardants commonly used on building materials, rugs, upholstery, wire insulators, and computers. These chemicals can also be found in products that contain recycled plastic from electronics, which can make contaminated items hard to identify.
PBDEs can enter the environment in several ways: being released during the manufacturing process, leaking from finished products that contain them, and escaping as they degrade after disposal. Once they’re in the environment, they don’t dissolve easily, which causes them to settle in waterways where they’re often consumed by animals.
That’s one of the biggest ways us humans end up with PBDEs in our systems; we eat fish, meat, and dairy products from contaminated animals. We’re also exposed to PBDEs simply by inhaling or swallowing dust in our environment. Once PBDEs are in our systems, they can negatively affect thyroid function, immunity, fertility, and brain development.
Though some of the chemicals in this class have already been banned, they resist degradation and persist in our environment. You can still take steps to protect yourself, however, including:
- Choose products that are free of PBDEs (especially furniture and electronics.)
- Avoid contact with old flame-resistant foam; don’t reupholster outdated sofas, chairs, etc. - buy new PBDE-free furniture instead.
- Be careful when pulling up old carpet that may contain PBDEs; wear a mask, isolate the area, and vacuum immediately afterwards
- Use a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) vacuum to remove dust and other contaminants from your environment.
The Best Way to Stay Safe from the ABCs of Toxicity
No matter how you spell it, these chemicals are bad news. With so many contaminants to avoid, it would be easy to throw up your hands and give up. But we all know that’s not really an option, not if we want the world to survive.
If you want to know the best way to avoid these nasty chemicals and heal the environment, it would be this: Cut back on plastic. Or even better, eliminate it altogether.
Start looking for substitutions you can make like buying biodegradable plant-based forks, knives, and spoons instead of plastic ones or putting leftovers in glass containers instead of your mom’s old Tupperware. It’s OK to make small changes, if that’s all you can manage; the important thing is that you start.