Q: Are plastics leaching toxic chemicals into my children's food?
A: They could be. But the real question is how dangerous the typical daily exposure to these chemicals is for babies and children -- and for adults. One of the main controversies concerns a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA, which is used in many plastic bottles, aluminum can linings, and plastic food containers. We've known for years that trace amounts of BPA leach into food and that most people have tiny amounts of BPA in their blood and urine. But the Food and Drug Administration has maintained that the typical daily exposure to BPA is probably too low to be dangerous to humans.
In 2008, BPA really started getting more scrutiny and more media attention. Canada banned the use of BPA in all baby bottles, saying that babies, because of their small size, could be at greater risk from even low levels of the chemical. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that adults with high levels of BPA in their urine had a high risk of diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease.
Given these findings, we'll definitely be hearing more about BPA. Personally, I try to minimize my family's exposure to plastic food containers in general, and I recommend the same to my patients' parents. When it comes to a developing fetus, infant, baby, or toddler, reducing exposure to plastics may be especially important, as even minuscule amounts of BPA theoretically could affect their health because their body mass is so low. What I recommend:
- Limit the use of plastic food containers for serving or storing food. Use glass, paper, and ceramic containers -- especially for microwaving foods. (See below.)
- Never heat a plastic baby bottle in the microwave. And avoid heating food in any plastic container, even if it's marked "microwave safe." Studies have found that heating plastic containers increases the amount of BPA (and other chemicals) that leaches into food.
- Memorize "5-4-1-2, all the rest are bad for you." It's a great little mnemonic helper. If you turn plastic bottles and food containers over, you'll usually find a number on the bottom that indicates the type of plastic they're made from. Plastic containers marked with 5, 4, 1, or 2 have little or no BPA. Toss items that have any number other than the four digits in the singsong rhyme above.
- Go soft. If you can't locate a number on the bottom of the container, opt for pliable containers. BPA is mostly found in rigid, shatterproof, reusable polycarbonate plastic -- the kind used in some CD cases, baby bottles, water bottles, and other hard plastic containers. Softer plastic containers usually contain less of the chemical.
- Cut down on cans. Opt for more fresh and frozen foods and fewer canned foods. BPA is used in the plastic lining of many canned foods and beverages, including soup. It's also used in soda cans, which is one more reason to drink soda sparingly. Paper containers for liquids are a better choice.
- Use BPA-free pacifiers and baby bottles. More and more of both are on the market.
- Relax. When it comes to your baby or toddler, there are more important worries than hard plastics leaching microscopic amounts of chemicals into food. Think about obesity, accidents, swallowing toy parts, and flushing insurance documents down the toilet, for starters. Follow my tips, but don't forget to focus on the big picture.