Here, we examine dangers in our environment.
Q: How worried should I be about chemicals leaching into my food when I use plastic containers in the microwave?
A: Fairly worried, although there are ways to protect yourself, so don’t ditch the microwave. First, the bad news: More than 90 percent of Americans have plastic residue in their urine, in great part from food coming into contact with plastic containers, especially when using them to cook in the microwave (chemical residue also comes from other things in the environment, like dust and air).
That plastic residue comes from phthalates, for you science geeks out there, and they leach into food at high temperatures. Research in animals finds that phthalates, which make plastic pliable, are possible endocrine disrupters—in other words, they can mess with your hormones and may even lead to certain cancers. For example, male tadpoles become sterile or even transform into females after being exposed to endocrine disruptors. (The Food and Drug Administration has banned six phthalates from children’s products and toys.)
The other major chemical that can leach into your food, and thus your body, is called bisphenol A, or BPA (or bisphenol S, which is similar to BPA); it’s also an endocrine disruptor. BPA is used to make hard, shatterproof plastic, and plastics containing it usually have a 7 on the bottom (the FDA has banned it from baby bottles). It’s also found in the lining of canned foods and beverages. Cosmetics, fragrances and even store receipts contain them, too.
Plastic wrap doesn’t typically contain BPA or phthalates, but it often contains a plasticizer called DEHA. DEHA is not a phthalate but is chemically very similar to the phthalate DEHP, and it can migrate into foods, especially acidic ones. The higher the temperature, the more migration occurs. DEHP and DEHA are often found in unexpectedly higher concentrations than we would consider safe in human urine. Plastics containing it usually have a 3 on the bottom.
Ready for the good news? Recent tests show DEHP and DEHA levels diminish twofold to threefold in your urine if you haven’t eaten food cooked or stored in plastic containers in a week. Here’s how you can reduce or eliminate plasticizers:
• Glass it. Use Pyrex or other glass containers to microwave food and beverages. When necessary, cover food with a paper towel or a microwave-safe dish, not plastic wrap, during heating/cooking. When buying acidic products such as tomatoes and vinegar, choose only those that come in glass containers. For drinks, we prefer stainless steel water and coffee bottles or cups.
• Toss it. Get rid of older canned goods, especially those containing tomatoes or vinegar, because acidity increases the leaching of plasticizers from the cans’ liners into food.
• Time it. All plastics break down over time and when cut into, which means they probably release trace amounts of whatever chemicals they’re made of into your food. So toss even “microwave safe” plastics after three years, or if the surface shows any signs of breaking down.
Q: My spouse has switched to vapor cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, to cut back on smoking. Is secondhand vapor as much of a concern as secondhand tobacco smoke?
A: E-cigarettes—which deliver nicotine via a battery-powered vapor—are tobacco-free, so they don’t contain tobacco’s cancer-causing chemicals (aka tar). Although people may switch to e-cigarettes with the intention of lowering their intake of carcinogens or to wean themselves off nicotine, the vapor is composed of a hodgepodge of synthetic chemicals and often loaded with heavy metals and solvents. Some brands have been found to contain tin, nickel or silver silicate beads in levels greater than smoke from conventional cigarettes. And breathing in such small nanoparticle metals, which can penetrate deeply into the respiratory system, creates inflammation in lung and heart tissue, because metals can evade your body’s natural defenses.
We don’t yet know the long-term effects of inhaling secondhand vapor from electronic cigarettes, but initial studies have found formaldehyde, benzene and nitrosamines—all carcinogens—in secondhand emissions. The FDA recently ruled that it will begin regulating e-cigarettes just as it does tobacco products, so we’ll know more later.
In addition to the possible hazards of e-cigarettes and breathing in secondhand vapor, be aware that accidental poisonings associated with the vapor cartridges are soaring, most notably among small children who come in contact with the liquid refill cartridges. Children are occasionally poisoned by a traditional cigarette when they ingest one, but just touching the liquid refills for e-cigarettes can be dangerous for young children because the chemicals can be readily absorbed through their skin and eyes. So store e-cigarette and refill liquids out of reach of kids—we suggest locked prescription containers.
Q: I travel a lot for business, so I’m exposed to radiation every time I take a flight and go through airport security scanners. How hazardous is this radiation? And are there ways I can reduce my exposure?
A: On average, most folks in the U.S. receive around 310 millirems (mrem) of “background” radiation each year. The sources of this naturally occurring radiation include radon in the ground, food and drink (yes, our diets expose us to a bit!) and cosmic radiation. Other environmental sources include tobacco and marijuana smoke and coal plants. We get an additional 310 mrem each year from medical devices (like CT scans and dental X-rays), for a total of 620 mrem annually. Cancer risk doesn’t start to climb until a person reaches a lifetime exposure of 10,000 mrem above background radiation exposure, research indicates, although you want to try to limit yourself to 100 mrem a year or less in addition to background radiation.
The biggest source of man-made radiation is a CT scan, which produces views of your body as if they were in slices, layer by layer, to deliver a 3-D image—it can expose you to anywhere from 200 for a head scan to 11,000 mrem for a full-body scan. Chest X-rays deliver about 10 mrem.
With all this in mind, here are reassuring facts about flying: Airport scanners deliver only 1/1000th of an mrem. The flight itself is a little more concerning, because the higher you go, the more cosmic radiation you encounter. An airline flight exposes you to around 0.5 mrem of radiation an hour—a bit more if you fly close to the equator or at a very high altitude. For ballpark numbers: If you fly 100 flights a year of two hours’ duration, you’d accumulate about 100 mrem. (To figure out your mrem exposure, visit the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s personal radiation dose calculator, goo.gl/Jn0iiC.)
Some exposure is unavoidable, but you can trim it by:
• Opting for an MRI or ultrasound instead of a CT or PET scan (if your doctor believes the switch won’t compromise your care).
• Opting for the millimeter-wave scanners that circle around you instead of X-ray body scanner (backscatter) machines—if there’s a choice at the airport.
• Having your home checked for radon, including granite countertops.
• Stopping smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke. There are naturally occurring radioactive elements in tobacco. Also, the smoke itself attracts a byproduct of radon in the air that the smoker inhales. These radioactive particles are lodged in lung cells and may contribute to lung cancer. The same particles are in secondhand smoke.
Q: I use a Brita (carbon) filter at home, but I hear that reverse osmosis is an even better filtration system. Do I really need to invest in one? And how safe is bottled water?
A: It’s a good idea to use a water filter of any kind, since plenty of chemicals and natural compounds find their way into city water supplies, whether it’s fertilizer and pesticides from farmland runoff or water treatment chemical byproducts. While some cities and states have stringent standards and do thorough testing, others only do the bare minimum set by the federal government. (To find out how your city’s water rates, go to ewg.org/tap-water/statereports.) The carbon filter is like having a great screen door—very few things pass through. Carbon filters weed out pesticides, lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and things that may make water taste or smell odd, such as sulfides or chlorine. It’s economical and effective. Reverse osmosis (RO) is like having a screen door and a glass door. It’s a better filtration system, but it’s only necessary if you have high concentrations of arsenic, uranium, fluoride, iron or nitrate in your water. (You can get a report from your water company to find out what yours in high in.) But RO is also more expensive… for you and the planet. It costs a lot in terms of wasted water: About 20 percent of the water that is filtered is consumable, and the remaining 80 percent is runoff.
As far as bottled water, it’s generally not any safer than tap, with the exception of lead—the FDA’s standards for lead are stricter for bottled versus tap. But some of the plastic’s chemicals can leach into the water, and the government rarely inspects bottled water manufacturers to make sure they’re complying with standards. Your best bet is to fill up your own reusable bottle with filtered tap water.