A recent Danish study showed that, of almost 5,000 men averaging 19-years-old tested over a 15-year period, only 25% had healthy sperm counts. To blame: plastics like PFCs and phthalates found in toys, food and cosmetics—and the materials used to package them. Of course, the problem goes far beyond the plastics mentioned—plastics manufacturing is the third largest industry in the U.S., and at every stage of their journey from factory to landfill, synthetic polymers have a negative impact on our health and the health of future generations.
Fortunately, you, the consumer, have the power to alter this picture. This guideline is intended to alert you to the most inimical categories of synthetics, where they can be found and what they can be replaced with. The happy news is that there are alternatives for every synthetic listed here, which makes every shopping excursion a great opportunity to vote with your purse—or your murse.
PVCs: Polyvinyl chloride (aka vinyl), arguably the worst plastic for the environment, has been banned in over 14 countries and by the European Union. PVC, found in floors, wall coverings, and toys, must be combined with additives like phthalates and lead to make a finished product. These hormone-disrupting or neurotoxic compounds go on to contaminate our surroundings and, eventually, us, by leaching into the air and dust.
Phthalates: Phthalates, a group of chemicals linked to hormone disruption, are literally everywhere. These toxic plasticizers are used in hundreds of products, including toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, and blood bags and tubing. You’ll also find them routinely in daily-use personal-care products like nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes and scented products.
Perfumes and chemical fragrances: Fragrance found in body-care products are a special category of potential phthalate-containing compounds. Fragrances are complex compounds that can contain up to 2,000 different components. Any one of them can be a potential allergen, which explains why fragrances are the number one allergen in cosmetics, and why the rate is rising exponentially. (Switching to essential oils may be the solution for some of us, but many people will also react to an essential oil—organic or not—used in the fragrance component. Your safest bet is to stick to fragrance-free products, especially if you are allergy-prone.
Allergies aside, a big reason to look for fragrance-free on the label is that some chemicals found in fragrance, like diethyl phthalate (DEP), are absorbed through the skin and can accumulate in human fat tissue. Phthalates are suspected carcinogens and hormone disruptors that are increasingly being linked to reproductive disorders.
PFCs: Unregulated manufacture of products that are stain- and stick-resistant has resulted in perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) becoming a part of our background environment. They have even been found in the bodies of polar bears. Laboratory tests demonstrate toxic reproductive, developmental and systemic effects in lab animals, and now we are seeing the same problems in humans. PFCs are found in cookware, microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes, some dental flosses, furniture and clothing.
Sunscreen chemicals: Some research on animals suggests that oxybenzone and other common sunscreen chemicals, such as octinoxate, can be toxic to reproductive systems or interfere with normal development. Another sunscreen chemical, 4-methylbenzidyl camphor, used in Europe and under petition for use in the U.S., is a hormone disruptor. The most problematic of the sunscreen chemicals used in the U.S. is oxybenzone, found in nearly every chemical sunscreen out there. EWG recommends that consumers avoid this chemical because it can penetrate the skin, cause allergic skin reactions and may disrupt hormones (Calafat 2008, Rodriguez 2006, Krause 2012).
BPA: Studies linking bisphenol-A (BPA) (formerly found in plastic water bottles) to male infertility, endocrine disruption, early puberty, cancer, obesity, heart disease and much more, led to its gradual phasing-out. Most experts now believe that our main source of exposure to BPA comes from food cans that are still lined with it.
BPS: In addition to phasing BPA out of plastic water bottles, many food brands have gone "BPA free," including Campbell’s Soup. But it’s too soon to celebrate; some companies have switched to bisphenol-S (BPS), BPA’s chemical cousin. BPS has been linked to many of the same health effects.
Commercial polymers: While some synthetic polymers get a green nod, polyesters and polyamides in clothing and packaging aren’t really that eco-friendly. They begin their life as petroleum products. The chemicals required to create the end products are highly toxic and the waste products they produce contribute to water pollution and global warming. In fact, scientists calculate that nylon production “accounts for one-tenth of the annual 0.2 % increase in atmospheric levels of nitrous oxide." This is an impressively large yearly increase indeed, when you consider that nitrous oxide has an atmospheric lifetime of 150 years.