Plastic has pervaded every aspect of our lives, from feeding bottles and food storage containers to plastic straws and water bottles children carry to school. Here are some ways you can restrict plastic use and keep your family safe and healthy
The species homo sapiens needs water and food to survive. Our hunter-cultivator ancestors grew grain, fruits and vegetables and hunted animals to fulfil their protein requirements. They didn’t need packaged or ready-to-eat foods with artificial preservatives, colour, contaminants and pesticides. They ate fresh food and starved when it was not available. They drank water from clean rivers and wells. But their lifespan, despite living healthy, was half of what it is today. They died, not from toxins in the environment, but due to infectious diseases preventable by immunisation.
In the 21st century, drinking water flows from taps, released from centralised town and city reservoirs which in turn receive their fill from rivers and lakes contaminated with industrial, human and animal waste, and disease-causing microbes. State/local governments purify the water by flocculation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection. But these cleansing processes involve use of chemicals. For instance flocculation involves adding metallic coagulants compounds of aluminium, iron, hydrated lime and magnesium. Disinfection is with chlorine or chlorinate.
The human body cannot process aluminum. It is deposited in internal organs such as the brain, liver and kidney and causes Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Iron in drinking water is not as harmful because it is required for blood formation and is processed to some extent by the body. But it gives water an unpalatable metallic taste. Excess chlorine is associated with increase in the incidence of cancer.
Initially, water was transported in lead pipes. Since this could result in lead poisoning, there was severe public condemnation of lead pipes and they were replaced with PVC pipes made of thermoplastic resin, a plastics derivative.
Subsequently, a widespread media campaign promoted the use of bottled water. Several companies stepped forward to provide “safe bottled water” which is now sold everywhere. Some of the more expensive bottled water brands are sourced from “pure springs” but most are from the municipal water supply taps. You could do as well at home by filtering and boiling the municipal water and then storing it in a water bottle.
Water bottles and containers are often made of flimsy plastic, to cut costs and improve profit margins. They are seldom made from certified food grade plastic. Recent studies indicate that nano-size plastic particles can leach out in microscopic quantities. Therefore they are omnipresent in the bottled water we drink.
A safer alternative is to install ion exchange water purifiers at home and shun the purchase of purified water in plastic containers. You could follow this up by storing water in the fridge in copper and steel containers.
Unfortunately, plastic has pervaded every aspect of our lives, from feeding bottles and food storage containers to plastic straws and water bottles children take to school. Snacks are commonly packaged in plastic wraps and the companies that manufacture them may not pack them in certified food grade plastic. Plastic is classified from 1-7 with food grade plastic classified as #2 and is advertised with an illustration showing a fork and glass.
Non-stick cookware is often coated with Teflon (a plastic derivative). Though Teflon has reduced edible oils usage and enhanced cooking convenience, small particles flake off and enter the food and our bodies. In 2013 the composition of Teflon was changed. Fortunately now the particles pass harmlessly through the digestive tract. Therefore, when purchasing ‘non-stick’ cookware, make sure it’s been manufactured by reputed companies and ensure the manufacturing date is post 2013.
There is an urban myth that in developed countries, buried dead bodies contain so much plastic that they have stopped decomposing. We have not reached that stage yet in India. Short of being a hermit, it is impossible to eliminate usage of plastic in our lives. But we can start in small ways by storing water in steel bottles/containers at home and avoiding purchase of food items packed in low-grade plastics.
Minimising plastics health risks
Here are some ways you can minimise use of plastics:
Don’t reuse plastic containers designated for single use.
Use eco-friendly food containers made of palm leaves or ceramic.
Never use plastic containers to heat food in the microwave even if they are labeled ‘microwave proof’. Use ceramic crockery and cookware.
Don’t pour hot food or liquid into plastic containers. High temperatures cause plastic products to leach dangerous chemicals into the food.
Don’t keep plastic oil containers near cooking stoves because they emit chemicals.
Use eco-friendly plastics only.
Never burn plastic products after use.
Use steel bottles to store water in the fridge.
Avoid early exposure of children to plastic by breast, instead of bottle, feeding and shun use of plastic straws and weaning cups. Use stainless steel instead.
(Dr. Gita Mathia is a Vellore-based paediatrician and author of Staying Healthy in Modern India (2016))