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Plastic Safety FAQs

Plastic is everywhere – water bottles, plastic wrap, food containers, toys and other everyday items. We’re hearing about how some plastics may be harmful to our health. It can be confusing to know what plastics are safe to store food in, what can be heated and what should be avoided. What are the safety risks when it comes to food and plastics?

What is Bisphenol A (BPA) and why should I be concerned about it?

BPA is an industrial chemical used to make hard, clear plastics (also known as polycarbonate). BPA can be found in reusable hard water bottles, baby bottles and children’s sippy cups. BPA is also used in the lining found on the inside of metal cans such as canned foods. 

Scientists believe that BPA in the body can affect the actions of some hormones (such as the female hormone estrogen).   Scientific experiments suggest that BPA’s effect on our bodies may lead to cancer or fertility problems. BPA can also damage the environment. It’s been found in wastewater and may be harmful to fish over time.

*However - For most Canadians, BPA does not pose a health risk because our exposure to the chemical is very low. The general population can still use plastic water bottles, canned foods and drinks, and plastic storage containers and tableware.

The biggest concern with exposure to BPA is for infants less than18 months old. This is because when baby bottles are heated, BPA can transfer into the hot liquid. Also, some cans of infant formula are lined with BPA. Because of these two ways of exposure, it is possible that infants get exposed to an amount of BPA that is closer to the level where health risks could occur.

Health Canada is working with infant formula makers to reduce levels of BPA and find other options to use in plastic bottles. Health Canada is also considering a ban on baby bottles that contain BPA.

How do I know if something has BPA in it?

Look at the bottom of your plastic container. If it has a number 7 recycling code (see the triangle symbol on the bottom) then it may contain BPA. You may also see the number 7 with the letters “PC” beside it. This means that the plastic will contain BPA. A plastic container without a number may or may not contain BPA. The safer plastic containers to choose are those labelled with the numbers 2, 4 and 5.

I want to reuse my plastic food containers. Can I store leftovers in them?

Food containers, such as those for yogurt or margarine are designed to be “single use”. That is, they should only be used for their intended purpose and then recycled. They are not good for storing leftovers because they are not strong enough for freezing, thawing and frequent cleanings. If you do reuse them, make sure to allow your leftovers to cool completely before storing. Do not use containers that are damaged, stained or have unpleasant smells and never use a container not meant for storing food.

Can plastic water bottles be reused?

Like single use plastic food containers, plastic water bottles (such as those that contain filtered or spring water) are supposed to be used only once and then recycled. However, there has been no scientific evidence to show that these bottles are a safety risk as long as they are reused and cleaned properly. Water bottles that are not cleaned properly can contain harmful germs on the mouth of the bottle.

To reuse: wash with soap and water, and dry after each use. 

Can I use plastic wrap in the microwave?

The health concern associated with plastic wrap is that the food may absorb some of the plasticizer (which is the chemical that makes the wrap flexible). This is mostly a concern when the wrap is heated to a high temperature or when used with fatty or oily foods. If you’re going to use plastic wrap make sure that it is labelled “microwave safe”. 

What can I do to reduce any health risks that may be associated with plastics?

  • Choose glass or products made with other types of plastic (look for recycle codes 2, 4 and 5)
  • Allow baby bottles to cool to room temperature after sterilizing them or washing in the dishwasher.
  • Do not put boiling water in baby bottles. Allow the water to cool in a BPA-free container and then transfer to the baby bottle.
  • Do not store breastmilk in plastic bottles that may be made with BPA.
  • Use glass containers more often instead of plastic containers. They can also be used in the microwave. When using plastic containers in the microwave, make sure they are labelled “microwave safe”.

For More Information:

Bisphenol A, by Government of Canada

Questions and Answers on Bottled Water, by Health Canada

Government of Canada BPA Information Line: 1-866-891-4542

Copyright © Dietitians of Canada 2014. All rights reserved.

Dietitians of Canada acknowledges the financial support of EatRight Ontario by the Ontario government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.