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RHR: Beyond BPA – What the Plastics Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know


Published on

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

The plastics industry is worth about $375 billion a year, so if you think that there might be some vested interests that are not particularly thrilled about new evidence suggesting even BPA-free plastics are potentially harmful, then you’d probably be right. So I decided to do a Revolution Health Radio show to get the word out about this information.

In this episode, we cover:

2:00 What Chris ate for breakfast
5:40 New evidence: chemicals in BPA-free plastics are potentially harmful
15:18 The $375 billion dollar plastics battle
19:06 How to avoid the harmful effects of BPA and Plastics
26:20 Should we be worried about chemical accumulation from plastics?

Full Text Transcript:

Steve Wright:  Hey, everyone.  Welcome to another episode of the Revolution Health Radio Show.  This show is brought to you by ChrisKresser.com.  I’m your host, Steve Wright from SCDlifestyle.com, and with me is integrative medical practitioner and New York Times bestseller, and healthy skeptic Chris Kresser.  Chris, how’s your day going?

Chris Kresser:  Pretty good.  How about you, Steve?

Steve Wright:  Pretty awesome.  Just went for a little walk outside.  I’m trying to integrate more movement into my life based on our previous podcast.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.  Good idea.  Well, I’m going this weekend to Boulder, your new domicile –

Steve Wright:  Yeah, welcome to town!

Chris Kresser:  – to teach a one-day seminar with Robb Wolf, which should be fun, and then the weekend after that I’ll be in Austin at Paleo f(x), and I hear you guys are going to be in Austin but not at Paleo f(x).  Is that right?

Steve Wright:  No, actually Jordan and I will be making our conference debut.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, that’s right!

Steve Wright:  We’ll be on stage for individual talks, and we’re going some panels as well.

Chris Kresser:  Fantastic.  That’s great.  I don’t know why – maybe it was something else.  I saw, like, a Facebook conversation and someone said they were going to be in Austin but not at the event.  It must have been someone else and your picture was on there or something.  Who knows?

Steve Wright:  Imposters!

Chris Kresser:  That’s why I don’t use Facebook very much.  Yeah, so I want to talk a little bit today about BPA and plastics, which is something I’ve covered in the past a couple times, and there’s some new evidence that I think is pretty important that adds to the debate and the discussion, so that’s the topic.

What Chris Ate for Breakfast

Steve Wright:  Awesome.  Well, before we get into the BPA debate, what did you have for breakfast this morning, Chris?

Chris Kresser:  Unusually today I had a green smoothie, not a common breakfast for me.  I don’t think I’ve ever answered that way on this show that I can remember, but I was just not feeling like I wanted my typical fare and had some really nice fresh spinach that we picked up at the farmers market and a banana laying around that needed to get used.  So, let’s see.  What did I have?  Almond milk, some coconut milk, a banana, quite a bit of fresh spinach, which is fine if you do it periodically.  If you have thyroid issues or are sensitive to oxalates, I wouldn’t do raw spinach on a daily basis.  I put in two pasture-raised egg yolks from a local farmer whom we get them from and a little bit of almond butter and a quarter of an avocado, maybe a half of an avocado.  That was it.

Steve Wright:  Sounds delicious.  You know, being in Boulder, we’re in this little group of –

Chris Kresser:  You’re in the green smoothie capital of the world, man!

Steve Wright:  I am!  So, I’m rebuilding my network of food, and I recently got some eggs from a farmer in town here, like, a pasture organic farmer, and people are probably going to laugh at me, but this is the first time the eggs have come with poop still on them!  And so, this morning as I was trying to make my omelet, I’m like:  Oh.  Oh, wait.  I’m supposed to do something before I crack these open.  So, today was an interesting breakfast for me.

Chris Kresser:  Were the yolks really orange?

Steve Wright:  They were a deep yellow, but they weren’t super-orange.

Chris Kresser:  Deep yellow is good, too.  It’s the deep color you’re looking for.

Steve Wright:  OK.  Is there any difference between the deep orange and yellow that you know of?

Chris Kresser:  Just what they’re eating.  Different types of forage would yield different color of egg yolk typically.  When you buy store-bought eggs, you often see that they’re kind of pale, pale yellow, maybe pale orange, but that’s not very typical, and the pasture-raised eggs tend to be orange, sometimes even a deep orange or a really deep, vibrant yellow.

Steve Wright:  Yeah.  Interesting.  I’m always trying to find those orange ones, but deep yellow, I think I’ll go with these again.

Chris Kresser:  Mm-hmm.

Steve Wright:  So, before we get into BPA, I just want to let the podcast listeners know that as of today 85,881 people have joined Chris’ free membership on his website, ChrisKresser.com.  Chris has been up to a lot – you guys know this – over the last six months to a year.  He wrote the New York Times bestselling book, and when he did that, he revamped his website and made it much easier for you to use.  He took a lot of the stuff that may have been buried actually.  You may not even have known that he had done things like put together products on thyroid health, on weight loss, on gut health, and really consolidated those down and made them easy to find inside of his membership site.  If you go to ChrisKresser.com, you can get access to these products, but you’ll also get access to a 30-part email series that Chris has put together that’s going to come to you dripped out over time so you can learn about Chris’ essential tips for essentially reversing disease, feeling great, and having the best life you can live.  So, go over to ChrisKresser.com, get signed up for the free membership, and start getting the emails.  You won’t regret it.  And now we’ll get back to the show.

So, Chris, what do you have to talk about today?  I thought plastic in general was, like, the Devil.

New Evidence: Chemicals in BPA-Free Plastics Are Potentially Harmful

Chris Kresser:  Well, actually this research that just came out is definitely in support of that idea.  You may have recalled a while back, I think, in the early years on my blog I wrote an article about the danger of BPA and plastics and how it can affect our endocrine system, immune system, and several other systems of the body, in fact, and then I wrote a whole series on “diabesity” – diabetes and obesity – and one of the articles in that series was about environmental toxins and how environmental toxins, including chemicals and plastic, are contributing to the obesity epidemic.

But then about a year or maybe a year and a half ago, I came across some research and discussion from some scientists that were critical of the idea that even low doses of BPA are problematic, which has been an argument for a long time.  It’s not just really high toxic doses of BPA that are an issue, but low background kinds of exposure that, like, 95% of people living in the industrialized world are exposed to can actually be problematic.  But this article was written by a scientist who is very reputable and is an authority not so much in the BPA and plastics research field, but in his own field – I think he’s a male reproductive endocrinologist or something – and he and other scientists were quite critical of some of the BPA research.  So, I wrote an article about that and just said this is another one of those issues where there’s a lot more to it than it appears on the surface, and there’s some very compelling research in support of the hypothesis that even low doses of BPA are harmful and there are also some question marks about that research.  But the conclusion that I came to was that, hey, this is another situation where the precautionary principle applies.  We don’t need any of the chemicals in plastic to be healthy, right?  There’s no biological need for BPA, and there are also a number of environmental reasons to reduce our use of plastic, so my recommendation was still to use stainless steel water bottles, use glass Tupperware instead of plastic, don’t buy plastic water bottles, don’t buy plastic baby bottles when possible – just try to reduce your exposure as much as you can because we don’t really fully know what the deal is with this stuff.

So, fast forward to recently.  At the end of last year, October or December 2013, there was a major landmark review paper published in the journal Endocrine Disruptors, and it’s called Low dose effects of bisphenol-A:  An integrated review of in vitro, laboratory animal, and epidemiology studies.  They reviewed a huge, huge number of studies in three different categories:  cell culture studies, which are interesting but on their own not quite reliable in terms of coming to conclusions about how things affect humans because you’re studying things in a Petri dish; laboratory animal studies, so where they expose the animals to these chemicals and see what happens, and of course, that’s a step up and more compelling, but still you have to be careful about extrapolating those results to humans; and then epidemiological studies, which we’ve discussed ad nauseam, and those have several caveats as well because you’re just looking at populations and exposure populations and following them and seeing what happens, and there are lots of potential confounding factors that can skew the results, etc.  But even though each of these types of studies individually has some issues, when you put them all together and they’re all really kind of pointing in the same direction and saying the same thing, it becomes a lot more compelling.

There was this big article that got tons of exposure and discussion in the media published on MotherJones.com – maybe in the magazine, too; I don’t get it – but it’s called The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics, and the author was Mariah Blake, and the subhead is And the Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury it.  She basically reviews a lot of the evidence that has recently come out from a lot of scientists around the world in support of the idea that, number one, low doses of BPA, the kinds of doses that nearly all of us are exposed to in the industrialized world – and even in the non-industrialized world – are really a potential problem here, and the reason that they’re a problem is that this chemical BPA, or bisphenol-A, mimics the hormone estrogen, and therefore, because it mimics estrogen, it can have estrogenic effects in the body, and these effects have been linked to everything from cancer to diabetes to obesity for a start.  I mean, the list includes things like asthma, infertility, low sperm count, liver problems, ADHD, and the comment of one of the researchers in the article was, “Pick a disease, literally pick a disease,” and you’ll find a connection with estrogenic activity due to some of these chemicals.

That was one conclusion.  And again, as you mentioned, Steve, this is nothing new.  A lot of people have been aware of this on some level for a while and attempting to reduce their use of plastics.  What’s somewhat new about the recent research is that this BPA info has been out for a while, so a lot of companies have been switching to BPA-free plastics, right?  You’ve all probably seen baby bottles and Tupperware and things that are marketed as being BPA free, and of course, the idea behind this was that we can continue using these plastics because they don’t contain any BPA and, therefore, they’re not going to have these estrogen-like effects and all of these other potentially harmful downstream health effects.  So, what’s really disturbing is that a lot of recent research, including a paper that recently appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that almost all commercially available plastics, including the ones that are marketed as being BPA free leach synthetic estrogens, and even when these plastics weren’t exposed to conditions that are known to unlock these potentially harmful chemicals, like heat, putting them in a microwave or putting them in a dishwasher or leaving a plastic water bottle out on the dashboard of your car in the sun, just normal contact with food or water was enough for these chemicals to leach into the food and the water.  And the kicker is that some of the chemicals that are in the BPA-free plastics actually have been found to have greater estrogenic activity than BPA itself.

So, this is a real problem obviously.  It’s sort of trading the frying pan for the fire, really.  We switched over to using these BPA-free plastics with the idea that they’re going to protect us from the harmful effects of BPA, but what we’re actually finding is that some of the BPA-free plastics are even more estrogenic, the chemicals in them are even more estrogenic than BPA itself.  So, that’s all interesting enough and potentially scary in a lot of ways because a lot of people aren’t aware of this and are feeling safe by using BPA-free plastics, and if these scientific papers that have been published recently are accurate, then it means that we should really actually be cautious with any kind of plastic containers – plastic water bottles, plastic baby bottles, and things like that.

The $375 Billion Dollar Plastics Battle

The next piece of this is what’s at stake, really, because with these big polarized issues, the problem is it can be difficult to get a really objective view.  The plastics industry is worth about $375 billion a year, so if you think that there might be some vested interests that are not particularly thrilled about this information getting out to the public and would do just about anything they can to prevent that from happening and to put their own information out there that contradicts it in order to promote sales of their existing products, then you’d probably be right.  And that’s exactly what’s happening.  There are a lot of legal battles happening in the background where the manufacturer Eastman Chemical, which is from the former Eastman Kodak Company that used to make cameras and film and stuff, they have segued into the plastics industry, and they make Tritan, which is a widely used plastic that’s marketed as being free of estrogenic activity.  So they’re suing some of the scientists that have claimed that Tritan is estrogenic, and there’s this whole legal battle going on in the background.  Meanwhile, independent labs around the world are testing these plastics and finding that Tritan does actually have estrogenic activity.

It’s a big battle at this point, but what it seems like to me when you actually look at the evidence, when there are studies that are independent, you know, they’re done by researchers who don’t appear to have any financial interest in the outcome of the study, they usually come out in favor of the hypothesis that BPA and other chemicals even in BPA-free plastics are potentially harmful, and the scientists are quite adamant about the risks.  Scientists in general as a group tend to be low key in the way they talk about their conclusions in papers.  You don’t usually hear dire warnings in papers.  It’s just not the way scientific papers are written.  But when you read some of these papers, in the end you can almost feel their urgency and the emotion behind some of these conclusions because I think they’re actually really concerned and really scared.

It’s an insidious problem because it’s not like the effects of this stuff are readily observable.  It’s not like you have gluten intolerance and you eat gluten and you feel sick right away.  That’s not what’s going to happen.  It’s much more insidious.  It’s happening in the background.  It’s something you may not even feel or notice as it’s happening, and in fact, it might not even affect you as much as it affects your children and your grandchildren even due to epigenetic changes that happen in the cells.  Frederick vom Saal, who is one of the researchers and biology professors who has worked on the teams that have published some of this recent research, he said in the interview, “A poison kills you.  A chemical like BPA reprograms your cells and ends up causing a disease in your grandchild that kills him.”  That’s pretty scary stuff.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, that’s not exciting at all.

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How to Avoid the Harmful Effects of BPA and Plastics

Chris Kresser:  Not exciting at all.  And as a new father, it’s something I take seriously, and it’s something I’m concerned about.  There are other scientists that were interviewed for these stories that said things like, this is the largest uncontrolled experiment ever performed on human beings in the history of humankind.  We’re introducing these chemicals into our environment on a massive scale, and there are all kinds of cell culture and animal and human evidence that they have far-reaching effects on nearly every system of the body and can affect not only us, but our offspring and our offspring’s offspring, and these chemicals are virtually unregulated.  Right now the way it stands, a chemical is innocent until proven guilty.  In other words, a chemical is considered to be safe until it’s proven to be unsafe, and the burden of proof, at this time, rests upon scientists or anyone else who bothers to find out whether a chemical that’s introduced is safe or not.  That’s a crazy way of doing things.  The logic behind it is that if companies were made to prove that a chemical was safe before they introduced it, it would be antibusiness and it would be too costly and it would slow industry to a halt.  And that’s not my area of expertise, I don’t know enough about whether that’s actually true, but I do know that it’s pretty irresponsible and scary to introduce these chemicals without any systematic testing on how they affect us.  That just seems crazy to me.

Steve Wright:  And we have previous evidence that the paradigm doesn’t work, hence DDT and eagles.  We almost lost all the eagles in North America because of DDT.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly.  Yeah, there are many examples of this kind of thing.  And now there’s, like, this shell game going on where they just say, OK, so now BPA, we can’t use it, so we’re just going to use all these BPA-free plastics, and they have other chemicals, like phthalates and BPS, which is another form of bisphenol, that, as I said, in some cases have any more estrogenic activity than BPA itself.  In fact, there was just another study that was published that wasn’t mentioned in this article but that I came across recently on phthalates, and it was particularly on the effect of phthalates to male fertility.  Phthalates, like BPA, they’re endocrine disruptors.  They interfere with the endocrine system, which governs hormones and distribution of hormones, and they’re used in a number of different ways industrially, but they’re, in particular, used in plastics.  This study looked at how phthalates affected male fertility, and they showed that phthalate exposure led to sperm damage in men, it interfered with masculinization of young animals, so males didn’t acquire male traits like they should have, and other strange physical changes to male reproductive tracts.  This is obviously a big concern as well.

There’s just a whole big body of research now that is shedding light on these topics, and I plan to write about it soon, but I’ve been pretty occupied with other stuff, so I haven’t had the chance to do it, and it’s important enough that I just felt like we needed to do a little Revolution Health Radio episode on it just so we can get the word out.  The takeaway on this is, again, it’s not that different from the takeaway from all of my other previous articles on this subject, which is do what you can to reduce your exposure to all of this stuff.  There are a lot of options out there now.  You can do things like use stainless steel water bottles.  There are stainless steel food storage containers and travel food containers.  I use LunchBots.  When I go on trips, I put my food in those things, and we use them for storing food at home.  We also use glass.  We use mason jars, large and all different size mason jars for storing food, so it’s all pretty much stainless steel and glass.  There are many different options now for baby bottles that are free of plastics.  Make sure you take a water bottle with you.  It’s pretty standard stuff, and I’m sure a lot of people are already doing this, but I just wanted to get this info out so people are even more paying attention to it.

However, there are some situations where it’s not completely obvious or even necessarily in your control, and this is where a little bit of activism might come in handy in terms of getting this word out.  For example, Whole Foods, they got on the BPA-free bandwagon a while back when all that research was coming out, and they switched over to using Tritan plastics for their food storage bins.  I mentioned that Tritan has been tested to have estrogenic activity by some scientists.  They’re disputing that with their own internal studies, but if you read the Mother Jones article, I think you’ll come away from it as I did, really questioning their motives and their conclusions.  And then there are other things like soft plastic or vinyl products that are often given to babies for teething.  You should make sure that your toothbrush is labeled phthalate free, and make sure that those chew toys are labeled phthalate free.  Pay attention to personal care products for phthalates.  Microwaving especially, make sure that you’re using containers that don’t contain phthalates and other plastics that leach.  When I write the articles, I’ll go into a little bit more detail on additional steps you can take because I’m going to do some more research on it.  But in the interim, I think just avoiding plastics and making sure any products that you use are labeled to be free of phthalates is a good starting place.

Should We Be Worried about Chemical Accumulation from Plastics?

Steve Wright:  Chris, we’ve talked a lot about how to avoid ongoing exposure.  We’ve talked about the sort of real doom and gloom about what’s actually happening in the environment.  What about accumulation?  A lot of people are like myself.  I heated up a lot of plastics throughout my life, drank a lot of water out of water bottles that were plastic.  For the first 25 years of my life, I did this on a regular basis.  People who are now saying, OK, I’m making a step this year to cut plastics out, reduce exposure as much as possible, but throughout the previous however many years of their life they’ve been pretty plastic heavy.  Are there steps that we can do to help make sure that we haven’t accumulated any of these effects?

Chris Kresser:  It’s a really great question.  In general, our body does have mechanisms for dealing with a wide variety of toxins, and many of those mechanisms are governed by the liver and the phase 1 and phase 2 detoxification process in the liver.  And we’ve talked before about making sure those systems are functioning properly.  A good diet is obviously important.  Several different kinds of B vitamins, glutathione, and glutathione precursors can all be helpful, but I don’t really know the answer to your question with certainty at this point.  That’s one the things I’d like to look into a little bit more before I write this article.  I think there can be a tendency to overreact with this kind of thing, too.  We know that low levels of this stuff may pose health problems, and we know that we should be cautious about this for sure and do what we can to avoid it, but at the same time, it’s not necessarily cause to freak out and to do crazy detox programs or stuff that isn’t necessarily called for.  That’s one of the questions I want to try to answer when I write these articles.

Steve Wright:  OK, awesome.  This is even more speculative, but if the trends continue like they have for the past 20 or 30 years, are you beginning to think about how 5 or 10 years from now if people that are looking into their health might need to begin to do something on a regular basis beyond food to support detox pathways just because of what’s happening here?

Chris Kresser:  A lot of people already think that.  There are some kinds of functional medicine practitioners that focus right off the bat on detoxification, and to be honest, I’ve always been a little skeptical of that approach.  It’s always struck me as being a little bit, I don’t know, new age woo-woo type of thing and not really based in hard science, and I’m definitely warming up to – I mean, I’m not putting all my patients on detox programs when they come in to see me, but I’m definitely paying more attention to the potential role of environmental toxins in chronic illness, and I can definitely say that in my patient population there are certain people who just don’t seem to have the expected response to the treatments that I prescribe, the type of response that all my other patients have when they’re exposed to that treatment.  There can be a lot of different explanations for why that is, and that’s part of the art and the practice of treating complex chronic patients, but one potential reason that people may not respond as expected or may not make progress as they wish to – and as we would both wish – is exposure to these types of environmental toxins and whether that exposure is ongoing or whether it happened previously and it just hasn’t been adequately dealt with.  I think that’s a legitimate concern.

Steve Wright:  Gotcha.  Yeah, it’s fascinating.  As you said, it’s a very obscure idea, but it seems to definitely be gaining traction, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next 5 years or so.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I think so, too.  It already is, but it’s one of these issues that you’re going to see a lot of polarized media attention, so I just want people to be aware of that.  Whenever there’s $375 billion behind something, you’re going to see a lot of sensationalized media around it, and it can be hard in that situation to sift through the hype and get to the real truth.  That’s why in our analysis we’re going to be focusing on papers that are published by independent scientists as much as possible because I just trust that research a lot more, not surprisingly, than I trust industry-sponsored research when there’s this much money at stake.

Steve Wright:  Yeah, that’s a shockingly large number.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it’s big.  Statin drugs are, like, $30 billion, right?  So, that’s an order of magnitude higher more money at stake than even statins, which is the most lucrative drug sector, I think, either statins or PPIs, I’m not sure.  Yeah, we’re talking about serious money and serious potential money lost if this message gets out that even BPA-free plastics are problematic, so those companies certainly have a vested interest in telling a different story, essentially.

Steve Wright:  Yep, follow the money.  Money talks.

Chris Kresser:  Money talks.  All right, so that’s our episode for today.  I hope that wasn’t too thoroughly depressing!  I hope it just spurs you if you’re not already doing some of the steps I mentioned toward doing those, and again, don’t freak out.  Our bodies are fairly resilient, and if you give them the right fuel, exercise, sleep, etc., that’s more than half the battle, so we’ll be back with some additional suggestions in written form when I can find the time to do that!

Steve Wright:  Yeah, if only the day got longer, Chris.  If only the day got longer.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, exactly.

Steve Wright:  That was a really informative episode, and I think it’s great that we keep bringing this topic up because you know your first articles were several years ago and so to keep refreshing it and giving the latest updates.  I think it’s very important for people to hear, and as we kind of talked about a little bit there, as we move forward over the next 5 or 10 years, it’ll be very interesting to see where our opinions move and what the modalities of thought and positions are.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely.

Steve Wright:  Well, thanks, everyone, for listening to this episode of Revolution Health Radio.  If you’re not already following Chris on Facebook, you definitely should.  Chris posts a lot of the new research that we end up talking about on these shows and he ends up using maybe a couple months later for posts on his Facebook page, so go to Facebook.com/ChrisKresserLAc, and he also tweets out nuggets of info and studies on Twitter at Twitter.com/ChrisKresser.  Follow him in both of those areas to get the latest updates on things like BPA and all the other stuff that he’s researching and following.

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Join the conversation

  1. Have you been able to find a safe alternative when cooking sous vide or have you given it up entirely?

  2. I live in Los Angeles. I can use stainless steel water bottles but where should I source my water? It all comes through pipes so I’m not clear on how safe the water is to start with before I fill those water bottles.