Tests Reveal Most People Have High Levels of Plastic Chemicals in Their Bodies

I might think of my body as being made of bone, blood, tissue and water, but as I recently learned, it’s also made of plastic—home to an alarming amount of plastic toxins known as bisphenols. Used to manufacture mostly plastic items —such as water bottles and takeout containers—bisphenols are often found with phthalates, which are used in things such as raincoat linings, vinyl boots, and packing tape. Both types of chemicals are known to disrupt hormones, leading to numerous health problems, like early puberty, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and changes in liver function, as well as increased risk of cancer, particularly skin, breast, liver, and testicular cancer.

I learned about my plastic load thanks to Million Marker, a company that offers a simple, mail-in urine test that measures the sample’s concentration of both types of chemicals. The news was reasonably good when it came to phthalates: I am below the 20th percentile in the category of smaller, low-molecular weight forms of the chemical, and just above the 50th percentile in the high molecular weight form. I can live with that. But as for bisphenols, I was literally off the charts—at the 100th percentile— one of the most common forms of the chemical. I was in the safer 20th percentile for BPS, another common form.

If there was any consolation, it is that I am not remotely alone. “BPA particularly, as well as phthalates, are found in over 90% of individuals tested,” says Jenna Hua, the founder and CEO of Million Marker, who is also a dietitian and environmental policy scientist. “People are getting these exposures day in and day out.”

“If you have a sufficiently sensitive test, you will find these chemicals in everyone,” adds Dr. Christos Symeonides, a pediatrician and the principal researcher for plastics with the Minderoo Foundation, an Australia-based not-for-profit philanthropy that helps support Million Marker’s work.

The findings of groups like Million Marker and Minderoo are especially relevant this month, as the Conference of Parties in Ottawa, Canada from April 23 to April 29 to hammer out provisions for an international agreement that would limit global plastic pollution. The negotiators will be refining regulations and guidelines reached in a ministerial conference in 2022, with the goal of completing the work by the end of this year.

“These chemicals are everywhere,” says Symeonides. “They’re in the atmosphere around us. Even in the lab, when you try to test for them, you have to control for background contamination. They really are the canaries in the chemical coal mine.”

There is little wonder we all carry such a high concentration of bisphenols and phthalates in our bodies, since the substances are especially common in products that touch our food—including plastic and plastic-lined cups, mugs, and water bottles; microwavable food containers; single-use straws and utensils; takeout containers; plastic bags; and cans. They are also found in medications and vitamins and other supplements—particularly in the inactive ingredients, such as time-release coatings and dyes. What doesn’t go into our body goes onto our bodies—such as fragrances, shampoos, makeup, and other personal care products, which can be heavy in phthalates in particular. Cash register receipts contain phthalates as well. And if the problem was bad before the pandemic, it got worse after, as COVID-19 lockdowns led to a spike in online ordering, meaning more exposure to takeout containers and adhesives in packing tape, as well plasticized cardboard and inflatable plastic padding in boxes.

“Combining a few of these very harmful chemicals has a synergistic effect,” says Hua. “We are not exposed to just one of them at a time.”

My relatively low phthalate level may, in part, be due to my gender. Beyond soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant, I just don’t use many personal care products, something that is broadly—though certainly not universally—true of men as a group.

“If you test women, they tend to have a very high exposure because they use so many products,” Hua says.

But I’m a holy mess when it comes to BPAs. Almost every one of the items on the BPA no-fly list are part of my everyday life. I still use plastic straws; I eat all manner of takeout in all manner of plastic containers; and I nuke leftovers and prepared foods in (supposedly) microwavable containers with barely a thought. All of this is about ease and convenience; none of it is about health and safety. And there’s no easy way out, short of some smart lifestyle changes.

“You can start looking for BPA-free products,” says Hua. “But what was in them is probably just being replaced by BPS.”

For the public and even some environmental scientists, the temptation is to compare phthalates and bisphenols to PFAS—short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—another ubiquitous manufacturing chemical that messes with the hormonal system. PFAS are nicknamed “forever chemicals,” because that’s pretty much how long they linger in the blood and the environment. In the body, however, the large majority of phthalates and bisphenols are washed out quickly, principally by the urinary system and also via sweat, in as little as 24 hours.

“The liver sticks an extra molecule onto BPA in a process called conjugation,” says Symeonides. “That makes it soluble, which is why it’s so well excreted.” Phthalates begin breaking down in the gut and are further processed by the liver.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that no sooner do you rid yourself of one day’s exposure than you recontaminate the next day. Still, that daily clean slate makes phthalates and bisphenols actionable, says Hua. There are a few ways to limit your exposure to the chemicals—some of which I plan to adopt—including carrying groceries in cloth or brown paper bags; microwaving food in glass containers; limiting use of personal care products and looking for ones that are BPA- and phthalate-free; avoiding products packaged in hard plastic; eating fresh, home-prepared foods rather than processed or restaurant products; avoiding canned ingredients when cooking; and even asking cashiers for electronic receipts rather than paper ones.

In the U.S., the use of BPA and phthalates has been restricted in some cases, via a 2008 federal law that prohibits the inclusion of eight types of especially dangerous phthalates in toys and other children’s products. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also prohibited BPA in infant formula cans, sippy cups, and baby bottles. Last year, three states—Washington, Michigan, and Vermont—banned both classes of chemicals in product packaging.

All of that is a long way from significantly limiting—much less eliminating—substances that are essentially everywhere, which is why the Ottawa conference is so important. The agreement would take a range of actions, like requiring national and regional reporting of plastic pollution; instituting financial incentives to limit waste and manufacturing contamination; and proposing end-to-end control of plastics, from production, at the beginning of the plastic life cycle, to disposal at the conclusion.

“This is a huge opportunity for change,” says Symeonides. “Unless we are setting rules at a regulatory level, we won’t get people’s exposure to these chemicals down. It’s not all up to you. It’s up to the regulators.”