#308 Is Plastic Safe?

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How Dangerous Is Plastic?

By Steve Edwards

This month, Canadian officials announced that they are going to declare a chemical as toxic. This chemical is widely used in plastics for baby bottles, food, and beverage containers, and as a lining for food cans. This is the latest scare of what's becoming a long list of concerns surrounding plastic. Let's take a look at plastic, its history, usage, and concerns, and what we can do to best protect ourselves from something practically unavoidable in our everyday lives.

Plastic Cups

Why plastic?

In the iconic 60s film, The Graduate, the protagonist, Benjamin, is being tutored on how to best make his fortune. One of his would-be mentors offers him one simple word of advice, "plastics."

LaboratoryThe definition of plastic comes from Greek and Latin roots and means, essentially, something capable of being molded. Modern plastic was invented in 1855, when Alexander Parks mixed pyroxylin, a partially nitrated form of cellulose (cellulose is the major component of plant cell walls), with alcohol and camphor. This produced a hard but flexible transparent material, which he called "Parkesine." The first plastic based on a synthetic polymer was made from phenol and formaldehyde, with the first viable and cheap synthesis methods invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1909. This product, known as Bakelite, paved the way for the oil-derived stuff we now see almost everywhere. Subsequently, poly (vinyl chloride), polystyrene, polyethylene (polyethene), polypropylene (polypropene), polyamides (nylons), polyesters, acrylics, silicones, and polyurethanes are amongst the many varieties of plastics we come into contact with daily.

Plastics were big in the 60s, but the advice young Benjamin received was sound, if making a fortune was his goal. Over the next few decades, plastic took the place of many more natural materials and wove its way into almost every aspect of our lives. Now we live under it, sleep on it, drive it, wear it, sit on it, eat off of it, drink out of it, breathe through it, etc., etc. Plus, it seems as though anything that isn't plastic these days comes wrapped in it. It's so prevalent that the chances that you are right now touching a form of plastic are approximately 100 percent.

Is plastic safe?

Since the word plastic covers many substances, it's hard to answer that question. Petrochemical plastic has dangers associated with it from the get-go, since the waste from manufacturing is toxic and needs to be dealt with carefully. Additionally, this type of plastic doesn't biodegrade, at least not in a time frame that is meaningful to human existence.

Turtle Chewing PlasticOn all fronts, plastic creates a challenge. Manufacturing and recycling plastic are both potentially hazardous because many skin and respiratory problems can result from exposure and/or inhalation of fumes released during the process. Also, burning isn't a good option because it releases a host of poisonous chemicals into the air, including dioxin, a highly toxic substance. Because it doesn't undergo chemical decomposition, it can't be safely disposed of, either. In fact, there is a growing flotilla of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, currently the size of Texas, that is wreaking havoc on an already stressed environment.

From the above information alone, it would seem prudent to search for alternatives to plastic. But our point is to discuss more imminent potential health problems, such as whether or not we're going to get cancer from eating off of it, or if we should let our infants suckle it.

Essentially, plastic in one kind or another has always been a moving target. Research will suggest a problem and manufacturers will alter the targeted plastic to avoid the crosshairs. Plastic proponents will cite a reasonably long track record of safety to defend their position. Detractors say that we're masking the problems it's creating and blaming these problems on other things. The bottom line is that it's hard to make any definitive conclusions.

The latest news

BottleThis latest scare is over a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA. It shows up as symbol #7 on the bottom of various hard plastic items, including water bottles and baby bottles. A report from the United States Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program endorsed a scientific panel's finding that there was "some concern" about neural and behavioral changes in humans who consume BPA.

Just how strong a statement is "some concern"? "If the government issues a finding of toxic, no parent in their right mind will be using products made with this chemical," said Rick Smith, the executive director of Environmental Defense, a Canadian group that has been campaigning against BPA, to the New York Times. "We will be arguing strongly for a ban on the use of this chemical in food and beverage containers."

Others weren't so quick to jump on the bandwagon. "In my experience working with bisphenol A, it's a relatively benign chemical," said Professor Warren G. Foster, director of the Centre for Reproductive Care and Reproductive Biology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, to the Times. "There's room here for a lot more research."

Styrofoam CupsThe level of alarm here is hard to gauge. Not long ago, we were warned about the dangers of cheaper, nonreusable plastic beverage containers. This was briefly after we'd been warned about Styrofoam. And neither of these controversies has gone away; they've just been redirected. Styrofoam now has "safer" formulations and cheap plastic beverage containers now come with a "one time use" distinction.

However we decide to treat the latest news, we should realize that all plastic is under suspicion. There has been no definitive evidence either way on any of it. And while common sense tells us that we should consider other options, not all of those have been proven to be 100 percent safe, either. Remember what we now know about lead pipes?

Our lucky 7: the best-guess scenarios for safety

Since it's all under scrutiny, there is no best piece of advice to give out. But based on the latest science, along with some anecdotal lore and a dose of common sense, here are our recommendations for avoiding potential risks.

  1. Ceramic CupAvoid plastic when possible. Drink and eat off of glass or ceramic material, especially food and beverages that are hot. While debated, heat seems to break down plastic, allowing more of the nasty stuff to get into our consumables.

  2. Don't reuse plastic water and/or soda bottles. These container bottoms have a #1 stamped on the recycling symbol. They don't contain BPA but break down easily when washed, especially at high temperatures like those in the dishwasher.

  3. Washing PlasticHand wash all plastic containers. Portable beverage carriers, like bike bottles, should not be put in the dishwasher because doing so can degrade the plastic. This can be tricky because the small openings require thorough cleaning to get rid of bacteria buildup. While bleach can effectively kill this bacteria buildup, it has other health issues associated with it. It's best to make sure to wash these bottles immediately after using them.

  4. Don't put plastic in the microwave. Even "microwave safe" plastics may leach hazardous materials. Don't use plastic wraps, either. Phthalates, the last targeted elements in plastic wrap, were outlawed in 2006; but companies don't list what's in plastic wrap, so you're taking a risk by using it. Using glass containers with a paper towel covering is your safest option.

  5. Stainless-Steel Water BottlesUse stainless-steel water bottles. Many companies are jumping on this bandwagon. Sigg and Klean Kanteen are two popular ones.

  6. Use silicone pacifiers and nipples instead of rubber or latex. The latter may leach nitrosamines, chemicals linked with cancer.

  7. Recycling Number 7Unlucky #7. This is your magic BPA number and can be found stamped on the bottom of offending bottles—baby bottles are major offenders but also include some of the ultra-popular Nalgene-type water bottles. The #7 doesn't necessarily mean that bisphenol A is present but it may be. The Nalgene Web site will keep you abreast of the latest developments. For baby bottles, make sure you do your research.

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Steve EdwardsIf you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.

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Beachbody News Roundup

By Denis Faye

Welcome to the Beachbody News Roundup, where we sit in front of our computers for hours on end seeking out the latest fitness and nutrition news so you don't have to!


In other words, when you're done reading this, get off that ergonomic office chair and exercise! Whether it's exercising outside (it is spring after all) or working out with Turbo Jam®, Hip Hop Abs®, 10-Minute Trainer®, or Slim in 6®, you need to make exercise a priority. In fact, the latest medical research seems to indicate this too. May has been a great month for exercise. The press seems to be reporting on a slew of new ways that working out and healthy eating benefits both the young and old. Below, we report on four studies we found that underscore what we always say—exercise for improved and better health!

  1. Playing SoccerYet another reason to get your kid off the couch. The Bogalusa Heart Study reported this month that the road to heart disease begins in childhood and that promoting good health in youngsters can actually help prevent cardiovascular problems later in life.

    Researchers from the Tulane Center for Cardiovascular Health have been compiling their research by tracking 16,000 kids and adults from rural Bogalusa, Louisiana, since 1972. A report on a portion of the group revealed that a heart having to deal with high blood pressure from an early age actually changes structure in dangerous ways. "The heart starts to get big, dilated," study director Dr. Gerald Bernson told HealthDay News. "It also becomes concentric, and the muscle walls get thick."

    And the adults with these cardiac issues all had one thing in common. "Obesity in childhood is the only consistent factor predicting cardiac enlargement in adults," Bernson added.

    Source: Edelson, E. "Heart Disease Starts Early in Life: And childhood obesity is a key culprit, study says." U.S. News & World Report. May 14, 2008.

  2. CheerleadersMaybe the cheerleaders had it right after all . . . A new study out of the Washington University School of Medicine revealed that women who did regular exercise as teenagers and young adults were 23 percent less likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer.

    The ages when this had the most impact were 12 to 22. The theory is that moderate physical activity helps lower and regulate estrogen levels. When present in excessive amounts, estrogen can lead to an increased risk of cancer.

    But if you missed one too many track meets in high school, it's still not too late to get off the couch and get busy. There's plenty of research indicating that exercise and avoiding obesity helps ward off breast cancer at any age.

    Source: Arbanas, C. "Girls, young women can cut risk of early breast cancer through regular exercise." Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. May 13, 2008.

  3. Overweight ManIt's not just your belly that grows. Dr. J. Kellogg Parsons reported this year in the journal European Urology that men who exercised regularly had a 25 percent lowered risk of enlarged prostates. He reached this conclusion after pooling data from 11 studies involving approximately 43,000 men.

    Parsons told the Los Angeles Times that emerging evidence suggests "that the same risk factors [that] are contributing to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes likely are contributing in some way to [benign prostatic hyperplasia]."

    So, basically, if you want to take care of your butt, you need to get off it—one of our varied fitness programs will certainly suit your needs.

    Source: Adams, J.U. "Diet and exercise looked at as risk factors for enlarged prostates." Los Angeles Times. May 12, 2008.

  4. StretchingAnd you thought exercising was a pain . . . The Times also reported this month on new research suggesting that exercise can play a key role in helping people suffering from chronic pain, such as arthritis and fibromyalgia.

    The study, published in the November issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, involved 135 women. It found that those who walked, lifted, and stretched for 30 to 60 minutes at least three times a week experienced significant relief from their symptoms.

    "The pain doesn't go away completely. It's not a cure. But it's a way to improve how you feel and your ability to function in daily life," study lead author Daniel S. Rooks told the Times.

    Source: Dwass, E. "Exercise can ease fibromyalgia pain." Los Angeles Times. May 12, 2008.

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Denis FayeIf you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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Test Your Dairy IQ!

By Joe Wilkes

June is National Dairy Month. How well do you know your dairy trivia?

  1. ButterHow many pounds of milk does it take to make one pound of butter? It takes 21.2 pounds of milk to make one pound of butter. It only takes 12 pounds of milk to make a gallon of ice cream and 10 pounds to make a pound of cheese. Butter gets its natural yellow color from the beta-carotene present in the grass that cows eat.

  2. CaliforniaWhat state produces the most milk? California produces the most—over 30 BILLION pounds. Wisconsin is runner-up with 23 billion pounds, but it's number one in cheese production. Wisconsin produces over 600 varieties of cheese and is the birthplace of the popular Colby cheese. California is number two in cheese production and is the birthplace of Monterey Jack cheese. It is also the largest producer of Hispanic-style semisoft cheese, the fastest-growing cheese variety in the country.

  3. MilkHow much milk does the average cow produce each year? The average dairy cow produces around 17,000 pounds of milk each year. To produce that, a single cow eats 50 pounds of grass or grain and drinks 50 gallons of water every day.

  4. CowWhat is the most popular breed of dairy cow in the U.S.? It's not even close. Holsteins make up about 95 percent of the U.S. dairy cow population. Jersey cows are a very distant second—they make up about 3 percent. Jersey cows are known for having a higher butterfat content in their milk. The black and white markings on Holsteins are as unique as human fingerprints. No two cows are alike.

  5. Thomas JeffersonWho was the first person believed to be referred to as "The Big Cheese"? Thomas Jefferson can add this to his many notable achievements. While in his presidency in 1801, he received a gift of a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese—and a nickname was born.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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