Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about bisphenol A.

By now, I suspect all of you have at least heard of bisphenol A, or BPA, and most of you are aware of its toxic legacy. Since 70% of BPA is produced for use in hard, clear plastics, it comes as no surprise that we can find it in everything: medical supplies, water cooler jugs, CDs and DVDs, eyeglass lenses, laptop and smartphone screens, drinking glasses, hockey helmet visors, water bottles, vehicle headlights, kitchen appliances and utensils, baby bottles and water bottles, and scariest of all, the interior lining of tin cans that contaminates the food we eat.

Scientific testing has linked BPA with breast cancer, prostate cancer, learning disabilities, type-2 diabetes, and infertility. But did you know that scientists discovered its hormone-disrupting properties way back in the 1930s, i.e. 80 years ago? I'm not surprised that they initially believed the BPA would remain locked into the plastic or leach out only very slowly. However, it's shocking that they didn't continually test this theory and confirm that in fact, BPA is toxic even at very low levels. There is practically no safe level of exposure.

In 2008, Canada banned the import, sale, and advertising of baby bottles containing BPA. Two years later, BPA was placed on the Canadian Toxic Substances List, making Canada first in the world to declare the chemical as toxic. This is a great start, but we're not safe just yet. Rick Smith, who wrote the chapter on BPA, suggests the following:

  • When puzzling over the small recycling numbers on the bottom of plastic containers, remember this mantra: 4, 5, 1, and 2; all the rest are bad for you.

  • Find alternative uses for plastic baby bottles and replace them with glass ones.

  • Eat fresh or frozen food or food stored in glass bottles instead of canned foods, especially for food high in acidity like tomatoes.

  • Avoid putting plastic containers in the microwave, and if using cling wrap, keep it out of direct contact with the food.

  • Use cloth or canvas bags instead of plastic bags for shopping.

Please share any other tips for avoiding BPA in the comments section below! This post marks the end of the Tuesday Toxin Talk series on my blog, as I have written about all seven of the nasty chemicals covered in Slow Death by Rubber Duck. I hope these posts have been as useful to you as they were to me while researching and writing them. Some days I wish I didn't know how dangerous everyday objects are, but mostly I'm glad to be aware of the threats and ways to avoid them.

Image of chemical structure of bisphenol A sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of BPA-free water bottles used under Creative Commons from ZRecs (flickr).


  1. See, this is the fundamental problem I have with plastics: They're so bloody useful!

    Think about all the stuff we currently package and ship in plastic. Food, medicine, clothing... hell, everything comes in either a plastic bag or plastic bubble or plastic-windows.

    And yes, the stuff is awful and horrible and lasts forever... but getting rid of it would be... problematic. You can't replace it easily with anything else (try putting a salad in a paper bag), so you'd either have to reduce the number of things we can buy (say goodbye to the "Prepared Food" section of your local grocery store), or come up with some pretty creative alternatives.

    Of course, this feeds back into our "need" to be a society of consumers, rather than one of thinkers. Why should we care if one box is more attractively packaged than another? Couldn't everything go in plain, boring cardboard with just a description of it written on the outside of the box?

    Ah, pipe dreams.

  2. Marc - I'm pretty sure the only reason we believe plastic to be so useful is that we have no choice. Now that it is all around us, we can't imagine doing without it. But we used to! And with ingenuity, we'll find ways to revert back to natural products that don't poison us. Isn't the world full of scientists, engineers, and everyday inventors? If only there was a great drive to take action, we could come up with alternatives.

  3. All the more reason to purchase as little plastic as possible, but I agree that its difficult to avoid it in our modern society. After losing both of my Nalgene water bottles, I switched over to stainless steel Kleen Kanteens. Water actually tastes better out of stainless steel. The BPA in canned goods is very worrisome to me. Especially since I eat a lot of canned tomatoes. After jarring about 10 pounds of fresh tomatoes this Fall, I realized that I'd have to grow and can A LOT of tomatoes to continue eating the same amount as usual and avoid the store-bought stuff. Avoiding canned tomatoes in general might not be a bad idea as I've read the the tomato industry (even for canning) has one of the highest carbon footprints in the agricultural industry.

  4. Emily - Good for your for switching to stainless steel! I've done that for my larger water bottles but haven't yet gotten around to replacing my small one. As for canned tomatoes, maybe you can find ones sold in glass instead of cans?

  5. Just thought I'd comment again with results from a little online research. Seems that there are many companies that sell BPA-free canned goods. Muir Glen supposedly now provides BPA-free organic tomatoes! Here is an old article from 2010 that lists various companies/products with BPA-free can linings. I wonder if even more companies have jumped on the bandwagon in the last two years.


  6. Thanks for sharing this great resource, Emily! I'm sure others have followed suit. I just wish I wasn't so worried that whatever they're using to replace the BPA is just as bad...