For years, I’ve read reports that certain ingredients in household plastic containers and bottles may be linked to health problems in children. But formal government and medical guidelines are scant, and objective, expert-sourced information can be hard to find. Plus, it’s not really something that comes up with the pediatrician. So I’ve continued to reheat and reuse a vast array of containers, mostly name-brand products but also those handy vessels that prepared foods often come in. After all, when you have three perpetually peckish, on-the-move young kids, is anything more convenient in the kitchen than lightweight, transparent, microwaveable containers—that are available in just about any size and shape your organization-hungry heart can possibly want?
But then I connected with Leonardo Trasande, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University and one of the country’s foremost researchers on the effect of environmental chemicals on kids’ health. He led a 2012 study associating Bisphenol A (BPA), a common chemical used in household plastics, with obesity in children, and more recently, published a paper strongly linking two types of phthalates—another group of chemicals used in plastics manufacturing—with high blood pressure and diabetes in kids and teens. Ironically, phthalates have been added to some plastic products to replace other, seemingly more suspect chemicals in recent years.
What he told me has effectively changed the way I shop for, cook with, and even clean the plastic in my kitchen for good.
First, I asked Dr. Trasande what his big takeaway from his many years of plastic research. “Diet and a lack of physical activity are the main drivers of the epidemic of obesity and metabolic concerns we are seeing in children today,” he told me. “But this study adds further concern that chemicals in the environment are independent contributors.”
Then I asked him about his “rules” for using plastic food and drink containers. (He’s the dad of two boys, 7 and 5.) Here’s what he does; and advises others to do, too.
1. Look at the bottom of plastic containers before buying, and avoid ones with the recycling codes 3, 6, and 7.
A lot of companies now include “BPA-free” and “safe for microwave” on plastic container labels. But the real test, according to Dr. Trasande, is looking at the bottom of a bowl or bottle for its recycling code. Numbers from 1 to 7 indicate the chemicals used in the product, and some are more worrisome than others. “The number 3 means phthalates, which raises the possibility of contamination into liquid,” he says. He also advises families to avoid plastics with a 6 (polystyrene, often made in products meant to rigid) or 7 (a catch-all for miscellaneous “other” chemicals, including polycarbonate, which is produced using BPA).
I looked at the bottom of some of the containers in our house the other day. Most of our food storage containers had 5s and our beverage bottles were marked with 1s (relatively safer choices). But our Solo cups and lids were marked with 6s. And those styrofoam cups which hold endless cups of coffee and hot chocolate that are often reheated in the microwave? All marked with a 6. Our clamshell-shaped Chinese take-out containers, too.
2. Opt for wax paper or aluminum foil to wrap food whenever possible—and request that your deli and butcher counters do the same.
Most companies have eliminated BPA and phthalates from household wrap, but it’s harder to monitor what’s being used in products sold at the supermarket. Regardless, “using paper or foil reduces the amount of contact that (all) plastics have with food,” says Dr. Trasande. Plastic chemicals are especially likely to migrate into fatty foods like meats and cheeses.
3. Don’t microwave plastic.
This goes for any kind of plastic container or wrap, in Dr. Transande’s book, regardless of recycling code. “When you cook foods at these high heats, you’re inviting plastics to melt at a microscopic level and travel into your food,” he says. Stick with glass or ceramic instead.
4. Don’t wash plastic in dishwasher.
This is one I’d never thought of. “Use soap and water in the sink instead,” says Dr. Trasande. “Harsher detergents etch the plastic and increase absorption into liquids and foods.”
5. Pitch plastic that’s become scratched up.
Once plastic is “etched,” that increases the odds of chemical leaching, Dr. Trasande says.
6. Don’t reuse plastic drink bottles.
If plastic bottles were meant for single use, keep them that way, advises Dr. Transade. “Besides, reusing them raises the chance of bacterial contamination.”
Plastic may be ubiquitous these days, and keeping track of every odd container that comes from a store or restaurant may be futile. But making a few better choices at the kitchen and grocery store? That, I think I can do. For more information about Dr. Transande’s research, visit his page at NYU School of Medicine, here.