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What Else is in Plastics

Research and developed by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, Ph.D.
Updated Nov. 2004. For references click here.

Plastics contain much more than the #1 - #7 resins with which they are labeled. It is nearly impossible to find out what other chemicals go into the makeup of a plastic container and how those chemicals might migrate into food, drink, saliva, skin, air, etc. For example, because PVC is unstable in its raw state, it usually contains toxic "stabilizers" such as lead, cadmium, barium or organotins to prevent its breakdown.(7) As with phthalates, other PVC additives are not chemically bound to the PVC polymer, leaving potential for migration. Some EU nations have banned use of cadmium or lead as stabilizers in PVC. In the U.S., lead-containing PVC blinds were taken off the market in 1996 because of the risk to children of the lead-containing dust released from them. Toxic PVC additives remain commonplace, however, in a wide variety of household PVC products that children commonly contact.(7) PET also has been found to contain a large number of migrating compounds (for review see "Polyethylene Terephthalate Migration and Toxicity," www.mindfully.org). General categories of additives commonly found in plastics are listed below and give an idea of the complexity of tracking all the chemicals that go into a plastic product.(6)

  • Antioxidants
  • Free radical initiator
  • Antimicrobial
  • Heat stabilizer
  • Antistatic agent
  • Impact Modifier
  • Blowing agent
  • Lubricants/Mold releaser
  • Catalysts/Curing agent
  • Plasticizers
  • Colorant
  • Reinforcers
  • Filler
  • Ultraviolet stabilizers
  • Flame-retardants

The manufacturing of plastics is another important source of human exposure to toxic chemicals that has received little attention. For example, the manufacture of #1 PET (polyethylene terepthalate) generates 100 times more emissions - including nickel, benzene, ethylbenzene and ethylene oxide - than an equal quantity of glass (Los Angeles Times Magazine, Aug. 1, 2004). Highly toxic dioxins are a by-product of both PCV production and incineration. Developing countries often lack landfills, so incineration is commonplace. According to the U.S. EPA (2001), 15% of our solid waste (which includes plastics) is still incinerated. Also, given that PVC is a ubiquitous component of building materials, think of the immeasurable release of dioxins when fires break out in populated areas.

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