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Types of Plastics

Concerns about chemicals that slowly dissolve out of plastics are rising.  The cautious consumer may want to avoid potential risks while science, government and industry work out broader solutions.  Yet with everything from water bottles to Wedding Barbies made of plastic, it is nearly impossible to imagine completely avoiding them - especially since ingredients in plastics are not usually listed.  Here is a guide to two toxics in plastic:  phthalates and bisphenol A.


Used in:  polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products to make them more flexible and longer-lasting. Some medical tubing, shower curtains, rain coats, food wrap, bath toys, personal care products, and more.

Science: Animal studies have associated phthalates with a variety of health problems, notably reproductive abnormalities and cancer (Shea, 2003). Studies on humans are less conclusive although they do raise concerns about reproductive abnormalities and asthma. Seattle researchers published in Pediatrics journal conclude that many baby care products are a source of phthalate exposure for infants(Sathyanarayana et al., 2008).

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Used in: polycarbonate plastics, used to make some types of beverage containers (often the rigid water bottles and jugs), compact disks, plastic dinnerware, impact-resistant safety equipment, automobile parts, and toys. BPA epoxy resins are used in the protective linings of food cans, in dental sealants, and in other products.

Science: Animal studies show that bisphenol A disrupts hormone functions, leading to reproductive problems, cancer, birth defects, and obesity in the test animals as well as problems with immune system and brain (Zsarnovszky, 2005; Lee, 2007; Richter et al. 2007; USGS 2007).  Although human studies do not yet show connections to these disorders, its presence in humans at high levels (CDC 2009) has raised alarm. In January 2010 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to limit children's exposure to this common chemical.

What Is Being Done

Many toy companies, retailers and manufacturers (including major formula and baby-bottle manufacturers) have voluntarily phased out phthalates, PVC, and BPA.  A new law in Washington will end the sale of some products that contain BPA, but this does not come into effect until July 1, 2011 (for cups for children under 3) and July 1, 2012 (for sports bottles). Also in Washington, the Children’s Safe Products Act (also known as the “Toxic Toy bill”), signed in April 2008, requires toys and other children's products to be tested for toxics prior to their sale. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing BPA.

What You Can Do

  • Look for products marked "BPA-free" or "phthalate-free."  If possible check that these claims are backed up by a third party - not the manufacturer.
  • Check the recycling triangle with the code number on the bottom of plastic containers.  This tells you the type of plastic used.  See our Guide to Safer Plastics [PDF]
  • To avoid phthalates and bisphenol A, steer clear of #3 (PVC) and #7 (polycarbonate). Styrene, another toxin, is in #6 plastics.
  • The safest plastic choices are #1 (PETE/PET – used for most 2-liter and smaller beverage bottles) and #5 (polypropylene, used for some cups, squeeze bottles, and yogurt containers).  Also considered safe are #2 (HDPE) and #4 (LDPE – look for food wrap made of this).
  • #1 and #2 water bottles are recommended for single use only.
  • Be careful how you heat up your children's food.  When hot liquids come into contact with packaging made of BPA, traces of the BPA can get into the food or liquid.
  • Do not heat baby formula or food in these plastics or store hot food in them. If you have heated your child's breast milk or formula, allow it to cool to lukewarm before placing in a plastic bottle.
  • Avoid heating food in plastics in the microwave, especially fatty foods such as meat and cheese.
  • Try waxed paper or paper towels instead of cling wrap in the microwave.  Or, look for LDPE #4 cling wrap.
  • For BPA and phthalate-free products, look for food in glass, stainless steel, and/or cardboard "brick" cartons. For storing or heating food, try stainless steel, glass, and bamboo cookware.
  • The older the plastics are and the more they are washed and scratched, the more they can leach chemicals into their contents.  Discard (recycle if possible) old, cloudy, and cracked plastic containers.
  • Plastic toys may not have code numbers on them.  For toys that babies and children chew on, check www.healthytoys.org to see test results for heavy metals and chlorine (which suggests the presence of phthalates).  Note that as the website states: “The levels are not intended to correspond to levels known to cause health effects. Rather, they are meant to provide a relative measure of the level of the chemical on the toy's surface."


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This page last updated: 07/07/21