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Are Your Pills Poisoning You with Plastic?

Plastic is convenient, lightweight, unbreakable and inexpensive. But controversy rages over its potential health risks.

BPA (bisphenol A) has become a target for criticism. It is used in everything from water bottles and football helmets to baby bottles and eyeglasses.

The FDA recently revised its formerly nonchalant attitude to the chemical, a potential hormone mimic. The agency now admits there may be some concern over BPA’s effects on brain development in fetuses, babies and young children. Since BPA acts like estrogen, it might also influence breast and prostate development. The agency has called for additional research to be conducted by the National Toxicology Program.

In the meantime, the FDA suggests that consumers take steps to protect themselves and their children by not heating foods or liquids in hard plastic containers in the microwave, and by not putting hot liquids into sippy cups or bottles that contain BPA. The chemical is also found in the lining of metal cans. An article in Consumer Reports (December 2009) revealed that a surprising amount of BPA had leached into some canned goods.

New data from the Environmental Working Group show just how thoroughly BPA has made its way into our tissues. Scientists for the nonprofit advocacy group found BPA in nine of ten samples of umbilical cord blood they tested, suggesting that exposure begins in the womb.

If consumers carefully avoid food from cans and hard, clear containers, they might minimize the amount of BPA they take in. But what about those soft, bendable containers at the take-out counter? Are they a safer alternative?

Unfortunately, they might not be. Many soft plastics contain different types of plasticizers, called phthalates, to keep products flexible. And there are growing concerns about phthalates as well.

Like BPA, phthalate compounds may sometimes act like hormones. Some researchers consider them endocrine disruptors, although the American Chemistry Council disagrees. Parents have been warned not to allow babies to chew on phthalate-containing soft plastic toys and to choose phthalate-free baby powder and lotions.

Another hidden source of phthalates can be pill coatings. Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs may be covered with phthalate-containing plastic. Every time you swallow such a pill your exposure increases dramatically. Researchers have found that phthalate levels can rise as much as 100 fold after a few months of taking such a medication (Environmental Health Perspectives, Feb. 2009).

Both BPA and phthalates can migrate from plastic containers into the food inside. No one knows for sure whether this poses a significant risk for adults, but it seems prudent to minimize the exposure of infants and pregnant women.

Here are some guidelines that will help:

* Never use plastic containers (hard or soft) to heat food in the microwave.

* Look for canned food or beverages that do not have BPA in the lining.

* Do not use BPA-containing baby bottles or pacifiers that contain phthalates.

* Avoid pills that have plastic coatings containing phthalates. Ask your pharmacist to check with the manufacturer.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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