Plastic carrier bags and other garbage pollution in ocean

Plastic Trash (Fotolia)

Oh, that prophetic line from the movie The Graduate. There’ve been a lot of stories lately about plastic in our environment, thanks to the hundreds of millions of tons produced globally each year.1 Because it’s so convenient, plastic is a tough habit to break. So why bother? Plastics and their additives cause problems at all stages in what we call their lifecycle and for our health. And plastics that contain halogens (chlorine, bromine, and fluorine), like vinyl (PVC), nonstick products, and those containing flame retardants, are even more problematic from start to finish.

What is the lifecycle of plastic?

  • First, there’s the production stage. Most plastic is produced from fossil fuels, like petroleum and natural gas. When these are extracted from the earth, they can contaminate air and water resources.
  • Then there’s the consumer stage. Look around your home and in your shopping bags to see just how many products are either made from or are wrapped in plastic. Another source that you can’t see is what leaches into your food during processing.
  • Finally, there’s the disposal stage. Though much plastic is interred in landfills, many tons have escaped and is now circling our oceans or spoiling beaches. Though developed countries like the U.S. successfully capture 99% of plastic waste, countries in East Asia and the Pacific lose around 60% to littering or improper disposal.1 Also, incineration of trash containing halogenated plastics generates very toxic molecules like dioxins.

The lifecycle stage that has the most impact on you and your family’s health is the middle one, i.e. what makes it into your home and your body. You may wonder how something ‘inert’ like plastic, meaning it doesn’t decompose or damage products, can be toxic to you? It’s not like you intentionally chew on the wrapping that your sandwich came in, right? Though most plastics are very large molecules that your body can’t absorb, there are smaller molecules associated with them that are absorbed into your bloodstream from the food you eat or across your skin. These include additives like phthalates that make plastics soft and pliable, components of hard plastics like bisphenols, or grease-proof linings made from perfluorinated chemicals. And recent studies have shown that the fish we eat for dinner may now be contaminated by microplastics, another route of exposure for us.2

These smaller molecules are the chemicals that are problematic for your health, particularly for children and developing fetuses. For example, phthalates have been shown in animal studies to impair male sexual health, with similar problems showing up in humans who were exposed to higher levels of these chemicals during gestation.3 BPA, and it’s substitutes, have been shown to cause genetic damage and interfere with estrogen receptors in animal studies.4

How do these chemicals get into your food? Studies have shown that processed foods contain higher levels of phthalates than whole, unprocessed foods. For example, processed cheese products were recently analyzed for phthalates. Cheese powder contained higher levels than regular cheeses, though they were also contaminated by these chemicals.5 In other words, the more food is handled prior to getting to you, the higher the levels of plastic components it will likely contain. And a recent study showed that people who eat out more often had higher levels of both phthalates and BPA in their bodies.6 Finally, storing your food in plastic creates more opportunities for these chemicals to leach into your food. These molecules are especially prone to breaking off or leaching out of plastic containers when you heat food in them.

There are some great resources about breaking the plastic habit – I’ve added links to a couple at the end of this blog if you want to dive into a plastic-free (or at least, less plastic-filled) life. I recommend that you try going plastic-free for a month. You’ll discover how many ways you use plastic in the kitchen and shift your practices to reduce your exposure for the long term.

Finally, though it may seem overwhelming to try to reduce plastic in the world, particularly when its use is so prevalent by manufacturers, stores, and restaurants, there are some things you can do to have an impact. First is not buying products that are processed or heavily packaged. Second, let companies know you want them to reduce their use of plastic. Trader Joe’s, which is a heavy user of plastic, finally listen to consumers and has promised to reduce packaging.

FoodJarsHere are a few easy ways to break the plastic habit in your kitchen:

  • Eat more whole, unprocessed food.
  • Replace plastic storage containers with glass and stainless steel and bags with mesh or fabric. On a budget? Reuse glass jars from sauces/condiments or invest in some canning jars, though these don’t work for reheating your food. I reheat and store leftovers in a dish covered by a plate.
  • Never cook in plastic. Use heat-resistant glass, stainless steel, or cast iron. Be careful about using non-stick pans, even when they claim to be “green”.

For more info, check out these resources for great suggestions on reducing plastic from your life, especially in your kitchen:

  • has great resources for eliminating plastic and other waste in your life.
  •, Plastic-Free, Beth Terry


Selected references

  2. Occurrence of Microplastics in Commercial Fish from a Natural Estuarine Environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, volume 128 (575-584), 2018.
  4. BPA Substitutes May Be Just as Bad as the Popular Consumer Plastic. Science, September 13, 2018.
  6. Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 124 (1521-8), 2016.

What’s that in my food?

October 2, 2016

inglabelParticipating in #OctoberUnprocessed this year gives me another opportunity to take a closer look at what’s really in the food I eat. Thousands of ingredients are added to foods for sale in the U.S. and can include chemicals that act as preservatives, change texture or appearance, or add flavor. These must be listed on ingredient labels unless they are present at “trace” levels and have no functional purpose in the food.

Later this month I’ll post on health effects associated with some of these ingredients. But today I want to talk about how to choose foods that are free of potentially toxic ingredients. One approach I’ve heard is to choose foods with no more than five ingredients listed on the label. Another is to avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or identify. The second approach is probably the safest bet, since many foods made from whole foods can contain more than five ingredients and still be healthy – like ten bean soup, for example. The only limit to this approach is that some botanicals (e.g. plants) have Latin names that even a chemist like me struggles with identifying.

It’s also a good idea to skip ingredients with generic names like “flavors”, which can consist of a mixture of human-made chemicals, or “natural”, which is no guarantee that the ingredient has not been altered from its natural state. Keep in mind, avoiding unrecognizable ingredients in your food does not protect you from exposure to other chemicals that leach from packaging or are formed as byproducts of processing.

Bottom line: Just as it is possible to avoid many pesticides in food by choosing organic products, you can avoid artificial ingredients by reading food labels and skipping anything other than those you recognize as a whole food, like apples, beans, or oregano.

Share your strategies for avoiding potentially toxic ingredients in the foods you love (of course there will be a post on chocolate later this month).


Dear Toxins Blog followers:books

I am writing a book on the presence and source of toxins in our food and drinking water, whether they come through environmental contamination, are added as ingredients, or leach from packaging/cooking materials. One major chapter of the book will focus on how choosing different diets likely affects your exposure to toxins (e.g. plant-based, omnivore, paleo, vegan).

I would love to have feedback from you about what you would like to see discussed in the book, what questions you have on the topic that you think would be helpful for people to learn about. I am also very interested in including case studies on your experiences with toxins in foods (do you react to certain ingredients, taste contaminants, etc.).

Again, the toxins I will be focusing on for the book include:

  • environmental contaminants (e.g. dioxins)
  • pesticides used during cultivation of crops
  • ingredients added for preservation or other purposes
  • substances leached from packaging, storage, or cooking equipment.

When I have finished a draft copy of the book, I will be looking for several people interested in acting as beta readers to provide me with feedback before I publish. In gratitude for your services, I will send you a free eBook or paperback copy once the book is published.

Wishing you great health,


Join #OctoberUnprocessed!

September 30, 2014

october-unprocessed-2014During the month of October, I’ll be tweeting (@Laurel_Standley) on the benefits of an unprocessed diet on reducing exposures to toxic chemicals. This was inspired by Andrew Wilder’s annual event called October Unprocessed (follow @eatingrules). I highly recommend visiting his site ( and signing up for the month as a way to reconnect to ‘real’ food and good health. Oh, and to benefit from a reduced exposure to toxic chemicals that are present in packaging and processed foods.

Bon Appetit!



The Mediterranean Diet has been in the news lately for reducing the risk of heart disease and the need for pharmacological or surgical interventions.1 As a long-time fan of Dr. Dean Ornish’s work documenting the benefits of diet and lifestyle changes on reversing heart disease and cancer,2 I was struck by the fact that many of the same recommendations for the Ornish and Mediterranean Diets are also likely to reduce your exposure to toxic substances that contaminate food.

These researchers have shown that shifting your diet away from animal-based and processed foods can help reverse damage from heart disease and cancer. Fortunately, making these same changes are also likely to reduce your exposure to toxins associated with animal fats, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, as well as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, which can contaminate food during processing and packaging.

Animals can bioaccumulate fat-soluble toxins at levels up to a million times those in plants and these chemicals are stored in their fatty tissues. Because of this, consuming fats from beef, chicken, or fish can give you a high dose of toxins that are tough to clear from your body. In fact, it can take decades to get rid of these toxins so it’s better to just not consume them in the first place. Keep in mind that cheese and other fatty dairy products also contain these toxins so that vegetarians who consume animal-based products like dairy and eggs will also be more highly exposed than those who do not.3 The good news is that a vegan diet, which contains no animal-based fats, is especially likely to result in a lower exposure to toxins. In addition to the heart-protective nature of their diet, a recent study showed that vegans also have a lower risk of cancer than omnivores and vegetarians.4


Eat this not that! Vegan meal on left, packaged meat-based meal on right.

In addition to contaminants that are present in the food itself, additional toxins may be added during processing of our food. These include endocrine disrupting chemicals such phthalates and BPA. Recent studies have shown that it is possible to reduce your exposure to BPA and phthalates by avoiding processed food but that it isn’t easy to do so.5,6 This indicates that we will also need to change the materials used for packaging and processing to keep these toxins out of our food.

When taking toxins into account, it is important to get ‘healthy’ fats like the omega-3 fatty acids from less contaminated sources. Vegans can obtain these from algal sources and ominivores from distilled fish oils or less-contaminated fish.7 However, recent news on the mislabeling of fish in stores and restaurants may make selecting safer species a bit of a challenge.8

Finally, I also recommend switching to as much organic produce and foods as possible within your budget. Consuming organic foods will not only reduce your family’s exposure to residues of neurotoxic pesticides but also reduce the concentration of these toxins in the environment where we get our drinking water, grow our food, and live. The Environmental Working Group has great guides to help you save money while selecting less-contaminated produce.9

Bottom line: following these recommendations will help you reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and, as a bonus, exposure to environmental toxins:

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, preferably organic.
  • Avoid animal fats.
  • Include omega‑3 fatty acids from clean sources.
  • Minimize consumption of processed and packaged foods.


  1. Estruch, R. et al. (2013). “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet”. New Engl. J. Med. (Published March 2013).
  2. Dean Ornish, M.D. (2008). “The Spectrum. A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight, and Gain Health.” Ballantine Books, Publisher.
  3. Kalantzi, O. I. et al. (2001). “The global distribution of PCBs and organochlorine pesticides in butter.”  Environ. Sci. Technol. 35:1013-1018.
  4. Tantamango-Bartley, Y. et al. (2013). “Vegetarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population.” Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev. 22:2286-94.
  5. Rudel, R. et al. (2011). “Food Packaging and Bisphenol A and Bis(2-Ethyhexyl) Phthalate Exposure: Findings from a Dietary Intervention.” Environ. Health Perspect. 119:914–920.
  6. Sathyanarayana, S. et al. (2013). “Unexpected results in a randomized dietary trial to reduce phthalate and bisphenol A exposures.” J. Expos. Sci. Environ. Epidemiol. (online February 27, 2013).
  7. Natural Resource Defense Council’s Consumer Guide:
  8. Warner, K. et al. “Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide.” February 2013.
  9. EWG guides to “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”: