Is Plastic the New Lead?

Or, how I learned to find balance in a chemically scary world.

When I was pregnant, I liked to think of myself as Mother Earth, a life-giving vessel, a private ecosystem. Okay, maybe this sounds a little grandiose (if not hormonal), but it wasn’t entirely irrational. Given the mounting evidence that almost everything an expectant mom eats, drinks, absorbs, and inhales transfers to baby, I felt a lot of pressure to try to keep this womb pollutant-free.

In my zeal to be healthy, I decided to phase out plastic, which turned out to be a much bigger job than I’d anticipated. It’s everywhere in the house, embedded in the roof, walls, windows, and pipes. It’s in our furniture, flooring, shower curtains, raincoats, toys, adhesives, and cookware. As the American Plastics Council is fond of saying, “Plastics make it possible.”

The polymer’s ubiquity is problematic because chemical compounds such as bisphenol-A (BPA), used to make the shatterproof plastic in clear Nalgene and baby bottles, leach into food with regular use. Meanwhile, phthalates, which make plastics flexible and are found in polyvinyl chloride plastic (a.k.a. PVC, or vinyl)—in things like soft toys, building materials, and medical supplies—also have a habit of entering the air. (That new shower curtain doesn’t just stink: The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that it also elevates home toxin levels for more than a month.) Add to this the fact that most plastic is made from non-renewable petroleum and doesn’t biodegrade, and you’ve got one strong case for not using the stuff.

In a frenzy, I tossed my plastic bottles and began drinking water out of glass. I ordered old-fashioned glass baby bottles online and stopped microwaving in plastic, even if the containers were labeled “microwave-safe.” When I bought a frozen organic dinner, I took it out of the plastic container and peeled off the plastic wrap before heating it in a glass bowl. Then I tried to purge anything vinyl from the house. I swapped out vinyl bibs and lunchboxes for cloth ones. And I checked toys for the number 3 recycling symbol, which indicates a product contains PVC.

Though my efforts were intended to create peace of mind, I discovered that completely eliminating plastic was impossible—and impossibly stressful. Kimberly Rider, author of Organic Baby: Simple Steps to Healthy Living, warns that worrying about pollutants might be as unhealthy as the chemicals themselves.

Rather than spend her pregnancy obsessing about every last lurking PVC particle, Rider turned those nine months into a positive educational opportunity. “I really enjoyed learning about the wealth of products that fit my criteria, plus it made me feel great to support ethical companies that sold quality products,” she says. Rider decided to buy fewer toys and seek out ones made of wood with non-toxic paint or linseed-oil finishes, organic fabrics, and natural stuffing materials.

In general, Christie Matheson, author of Green Chic (and regular contributor to Boston Home), says not to dwell too much on what you already own. “Don’t panic about every piece of plastic in your house—and don’t drive it all straight to the nearest landfill, either,” she says. “That’s not a green solution.” But Matheson does advocate jumping at future opportunities to buy non-plastic alternatives.

In the end, I saw that deplasticizing can’t be an all-or-nothing effort. As long as I prevent myself from tearing into walls and floors, the material is going to be an interloper in my home. But making some changes, no matter how small, gave me a sense of power over the situation. At this point, we just don’t know what effects, if any, these chemicals will have on our children. What we do know is that we should be more conscious of the things we buy, trying to keep toxins out of our bodies and landfills.

[sidebar]Julie Deardorff is a Chicago Tribune columnist.