The Dangers of Plastic

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The problem with plastic for health and our planet
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It seems to be a common theme in history that the things that lead to great progress and convenience also come with a big price. This seems to be very much true with plastic products and packaging.

There is no denying that inexpensive plastics have made many aspects of food and water distribution much easier (though I would argue that this is problematic as well), but emerging research and data from decades of increasing use of plastics suggest that we need to seriously reevaluate our plastic usage.

Personally, I’m convinced that our health and the health of our planet would be much better off if we drastically reduced our use of plastic. Here’s why:

Health Problems with Plastic

Certain chemicals in plastics, like Bisphenol-A (BPA), have gotten media exposure for their potential health problems but there’s much more to the problem that a few isolated chemicals.


BPA is often added to plastics to make them more durable, but it was once given to animals like cows and chickens to cause them to gain weight before slaughter. BPA is known to disrupt hormones and can mimic the effect of estrogen in the body, leading to weight gain and hormone imbalance.

From The Journal of the Yale School of Environmental Studies:

There is also now abundant research that links BPA and phthalate exposure to such human health concerns as deformities of the male and female genitals; premature puberty in females; decreased sperm quality; and increases in breast and prostate cancers, infertility, miscarriages, obesity, type 2 diabetes, allergies and neurological problems, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

It is widely known that plastics from food packaging can leach into food and enter the body. The CDC reports that over 92% of people who were tested had detectable levels of BPA and other plastic chemicals in their bodies (including newborn babies).

“Estrogenic chemicals found in many common products have been linked to a litany of problems in humans and animals. According to one study, the pesticide atrazine can turn male frogs female. DES, which was once prescribed to prevent miscarriages, caused obesity, rare vaginal tumors, infertility, and testicular growths among those exposed in utero. Scientists have tied BPA to ailments including asthma, cancer, infertility, low sperm count, genital deformity, heart disease, liver problems, and ADHD. “Pick a disease, literally pick a disease,” says Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who studies BPA.”


Phthalates are also found in many plastics and in high levels in indoor air. The European Union banned them in 2005 and many other countries have banned them as well.

Phthalates are considered to be especially harmful to men and boys, especially those exposed in utero. They are linked to immune system impairment, reduced testosterone, infertility in men and many other problems.

Plastics and the Planet

To go all Captain Planet for a minute, plastics are literally taking over the earth at a terrifying rate.

Dr. Alan Christianson, an expert in endocrine health, speaks the drastically rising rates of obesity in humans and in many other animal species (including wild animals whose diets have not changed). In his upcoming Adrenal Reset Diet book (I highly recommend it), he explains how many factors can contribute to these problems, but that they all share the trait of negatively affecting the endocrine system, especially the adrenals.

The chemicals in plastics are known endocrine disruptors, and this common thread may explain why we are seeing these problems in many species of animals around the world.

When we consider how long it takes for plastic to break down, and the high levels of plastic pollution found even in areas not inhabited by humans (like the ice and water of the Antarctic), we can start to understand how big of a problem plastic pollution can be.

UV light and the salt in seawater cause microscopic particles of plastic to emit toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDT. When ingested by many types of marine species, these can be mistaken for estradiol, a sex hormone, causing a variety of symptoms related to endocrine disruption. Additionally, the chemicals tend to bioaccumulate in organisms as they move up the food chain, and can eventually lead to tainted populations of fish that humans regularly consume.

These sorts of problems have led Charles Moore, an oceanographer and racing boat captain who played a significant role in discovering and publicizing the great Pacific Garbage Patch, to argue that plastic pollution has become a more urgent problem for ocean life than climate change. “The sad thing is we thought Antarctic waters were clean,” he told the Australian Associated Press after the Tara‘s findings were announced. ”We no longer have an ocean anywhere that is free of pollution.”

With widespread plastic usage, it is likely that these problems will only get worse. reports that:

• Over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide. Consider China, a country of 1.3 billion, which consumes 3 billion plastic bags daily, according to China Trade News.
• About 1 million plastic bags are used every minute.
• A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
• More than 3.5 million tons of plastic bags, sacks and wraps were discarded in 2008.
• Only 1 in 200 plastic bags in the UK are recycled (BBC).
• The U.S. goes through 100 billion single-use plastic bags. This costs retailers about $4 billion a year.
• Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse, after cigarette butts (2008)
• Plastic bags remain toxic even after they break down.
• Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.

Plastics are widely considered safe by regulatory agencies, but not because they have been tested and proven to be safe. In most cases, this just means they have not been tested at all or that industry sponsored tests have shown them to be safe in small levels.

Where are These Most Commonly Found?

Different types of plastic chemicals are found in various types of plastics. This chart from the Ecology Center shows some of the most common chemicals and their sources:

Chemicals in plastics

The documentary Unacceptable Levels points out many of the most prominent sources of plastic pollution in our homes.

I know some people reading this are defaulting to the “oh please, everything is going to kill us anymore, this is just alarmist and fear inducing,” mindset, and I don’t blame them. It is hard not to feel like everything is out to get us sometimes, but I truly believe that plastic exposure might be the “cigarettes” of our generation.

It was once considered absurd that smoking could be unhealthy, and there were even campaigns claiming that more doctors preferred one brand of cigarettes to another. Soda was once marketed as a healthy drink for small babies. Regulatory agencies once considered now-banned chemicals like DDT safe for use and there were even ad campaigns promoting their usage around children.

Vintage Ads that show things we once thought were safe

We now look back and laugh at the idea that smoking is completely safe and laugh… perhaps that is how we will think of plastic in just a couple of decades. (Update: A reader brought to my attention that the soda ad was actually a hoax designed to make fun of other poor advertising from that time- though I found it used as an example of vintage advertising on several reputable sites. I have verified the authenticity of the other two ads and decided to leave the soda ad but disclose this information)

What Can We Do?

Unfortunately, plastics take a really long time to break down and the high levels of plastics in landfills, oceans and even remote areas of the planet paint a rather bleak picture of the future for plastic pollution.

One big thing we can all do is to reduce the amount of plastic products we are buying and using. This will reduce our own exposure to plastic pollution, our planet’s plastic load, and will often save money as well. Some great ways to reduce plastic exposure:

  • Start using a glass or stainless steel water bottle in place of disposable plastic water bottles (this is my favorite). Even better, fill your water bottle from a re-usable stainless steel water filter that will also help reduce chemical exposure from water.
  • Switch to reusable grocery bags instead of plastic or paper bags. These are widely available at many stores or you can make your own from old t-shirts. Bring lightweight mesh bags to the store to use for produce.
  • Stop buying processed foods that are packaged in plastics. This is a huge step for your health on its own, but it will also reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce each year. Shop at farmers markets and use reusable bags. If it is in a plastic bag or a box, just don’t buy it.
  • Replace plastic bags and plastic food storage containers with safer reusable options. Plastic bags, plastic wrap and thin plastic storage containers are major sources of plastic exposure. Switch to glass or stainless steel for storage, or use an unbreakable option like silicone. I like this silicon storage available here (use the code WMX10 to get 10% off). You can even make your own reusable snack bags.
  • Buy wooden or metal toys for children instead of plastic. (They last longer too!)
  • Bring your own glass/metal bottle or thermos when buying drinks away from home. Don’t get takeout food in Styrofoam containers which are a major source of plastic chemicals and waste.
  • Consider using cloth diapers instead of disposable. Here’s what we use.
  • Use glass and metal dishes, silverware and bakeware in place of plastic.
  • Recycle whatever you can!

Have you ever thought about how much plastic is in use in your family’s daily life? What suggestions do you have to help reduce it? Share below!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


106 responses to “The Dangers of Plastic”

  1. Connie Avatar

    Should I repackage sour cream, cottage cheese into glass when I get it home, or has the ‘damage’ already been done? I repackage dry goods into glass.

  2. Mani Avatar

    Hi Katie ,Great article,
    This has inspired me to build houses and do interiors with less plastic .
    Please help me to find more study material in this regard.
    Thank you

  3. Otavio Avatar

    Hello there! Very interesting article. I am concerned with my teeth retainers, though. I am not sure what they are made of, probably plastic, and if so, what kind of plastic. My biggest concern is; is it safe? What about the metal in it? Is it worth to wear them every night (actually I’m going to see if I can use it less often becuse I read that the continuous regular usage should be for the fisrt 12 months, and I have been using for more than that)? Thank you, I would appreciate a proper response.

    1. Berna Avatar

      I am wondering the same thing…I just got braces off and I have the plastic retainers and I’m really worried about it as well.

  4. Jamie Avatar

    Katie, I just have a ridiculous question. I am trying to avoid all kinds of plastic, but how about the plastic we use for our garbage bins in our house? What do you use? Thanks!

  5. Monika Avatar

    I’ve been limiting plastic when possible and I’ve also been experimenting with homemade recipes for beauty and cleaning products. I noticed that several recipes on this site link to plastic containers (such as the deodorants, pain lotion bar, lip balms & lipsticks). Is this because they aren’t food items? Are they safe to use?

    I’ve also heard that anything containing essential oils should not be kept in plastic but I’ve also heard that as long as the oils are diluted in a recipe it would be okay. Is glass the only option?


  6. Tanya Skinner Avatar
    Tanya Skinner

    Hi Katie,
    I run a daycare. I’m looking to rid of plastic plates and cups. Do you have any go-to products/websites that are good, yet priced reasonaso so I can purchase these items for these little ones to use daily for all my serving times?

  7. Jennifer Avatar


    We have made a lot of switches in the past 4 years throughout our home, including majors ones in our kitchen such as glass for drinking, baking and food storage. I recently purchased stainless steel water bottles and sippy cups for my kids. We use wooden cooking utensils. Our bakeware is not the non stick kind…I believe I purchased NordicWare. What else would you recommend for baking sheets? Also, in terms of food storage….we still use plastic baggies for snacks…I know this is horrible. What do you use for yours kids snacks on the go? Is there a container you recommend?


    1. Cari Avatar

      I bought stainless “half sheet” pans from Webstaurant. You may be able to find them on Amazon as well. We’ve had a hard time ditching the baggies too. Sorry I can’t help you there. 🙂

  8. David Avatar

    Sounds like the verdict is that we’re all dying.

    Seriously, you can’t avoid even half of these things unless you leave modern civilization. Short of some technological breakthroughs that would fundamentally reform how we produce products so that we don’t have these problems, we’re not going to escape them, unfortunately.

    I got pretty wrapped up in all this kind of health stuff for a long time, but eventually realized that it only fosters fear. There are some really basic stuff that can be done to help decrease exposure, and that’s fine, but, by and large, you can’t escape it.

  9. Alexa Avatar

    What about to go coffee containers? Do you have any suggestions for an alternative to to go coffee cup containers I can buy?

  10. PJ Avatar

    I have to wear a plastic retainer every night after getting my braces removed. I try to limit my plastic use everywhere else, but it really bothers me that I’m spending hours with plastic in my mouth. What do you recommend I do about this? The orthodontist said I absolutely have to wear it. Your advice would be much appreciated!

    1. Christa Avatar

      PJ – I have the same problem. I’ve been researching this because I was recently diagnosed with Hashimotos Disease – an autoimmune disease. I’ve been trying to figure out why my body is doing this. I’ve been wearing a plastic retainer every night for the past 7 years! Always wondered/felt they must be bad. Still researching, but so far have found that they could have BPA in them, or/as well as PMMA, an acrylic resin. I’m going to check with my orthodontist to see what type of plastic they use. Ick…. kind of scary!

      1. S. Kramer Avatar
        S. Kramer

        Christa, there was a series recently by Dr. Tom O’Bryan, “Betrayal Series, the AutoImmune Solution They’re Not Telling You.” Episodes 1 and 8 had at least one interview with someone who had Hashimoto’s. The recordings are available. You can for sure find Episode 1 on YouTube and you can Google Betrayal Series Episode 8 for the interviews.

        Basically, there is hope for people with auto-immune diseases. Healing is possible. The solution, believe it or not, lies in the gut. There’s a lot of new information on gut health, the microbiome, and the Functional Medicine approach.

  11. Anabel Avatar

    I was wondering what you would use instead of mason jar lids that are lined with BPA? I have so many mason jars, but have stopped using them with lids since I found out about the BPA.


  12. Gloria Avatar

    Do you know abaut the zojirush brand,if they use bpa or other kind of dangers chemics? Thanks

  13. Laurie Avatar

    Katie, thanks for this article. I would love to hear what you do/your perspective on freezing food and plastic alternatives. I use glass/stainless steel everything when I can, but when it comes to freezing all my homemade broths, fruit/veggies from the garden, etc. I feel squeamish about putting them all in plastic freezer bags and containers. Would love a better option and wondering if you have one!

  14. Gabbrielle Avatar

    How would you suggest freezing foods? I’ve been using plastic freezer bags…

  15. Lisa Avatar

    We have some wraps that we TRY to use. It’s hard to get my 15 year old to take them to school because she likes to throw everything away – no matter how she’s been raised lol. They are BPA free, but I wonder if they are still safe??

    What about when you make your own cosmetics and bath products? What do you put them in?

  16. Edie Avatar

    I’m interested in knowing how you chose to use silicone as an alternative to plastic. I’ve just assumed it would end up being just like plastic, touted as safe at first and then found to be dangerous. However, since you are using it, I really want to know about it. Thank you so much.

  17. Katie Avatar

    We just sat down as a family and watched the documentary “Plastic Planet”. I’d highly recommend this in order to get a picture of the scale of the plastic crisis!

  18. Kait Avatar

    San Luis Obispo, CA prescribed a no plastic bags policy so grocery stores only use paper & must charge 10 cents for each paper bag. I love how it’s motivated so many to use our re-usable bags. I hope that more communities will lobby for this!!! 🙂

  19. Evan Brand Avatar
    Evan Brand

    Thanks for writing this up. It’s up to us to deny plastic and eventually it is going to take government action to remove plastic from our lives.

    We can make a big difference as individuals, but I think it’s a bigger problem than we can tackle alone.

    Thanks Katie! If you’d like to check out a podcast I recorded with a Marine Biologist who lived in the middle of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” for a month studying the accumulation, it’s episode #93 of my show.

    Take care,

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