Plastics make our lives easier in many respects, but the chemicals used to manufacture plastic are having a significant impact on human health in ways that many people may not realize.

Chemical additives are used to make plastic products softer or more flexible or to stabilize their components. The additives may include lead, cadmium, phthalates ("thay-lates"), bisphenol A (BPA) and fungicides. Studies have shown that exposure to these chemicals may be linked to health problems, including reduced sperm counts and fertility, damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, immune and endocrine systems and increases in breast, testicular and prostate cancers.


Plastic is also a major source of pollution in our environment. Plastic bags litter our streets and neighborhoods, plastic bottles clog storm drains, and giant floating garbage patches of plastic called "gyers" have developed in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Hundreds of square miles of ocean now contain microscopic pieces of plastic floating at or just below the surface. Scientists are now finding these microscopic bits of plastic in the flesh of marine animals.​

Fast Facts

  • Toxic chemicals created during the manufacture, use and disposal of plastics are having a significant impact on human health.


  • Additives commonly found in plastics include lead, cadmium, phthalates, bisphenol-A and fungicides.


  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), with the #3 recycling code, is the most toxic plastic Choose PVC free shower curtains, school bags and other items.


Things you can do:

There is currently no way for a consumer to be absolutely sure of the safety of any plastic product. Looking for recycling codes (which appear in a triangle on the bottom of most food containers) can help you steer clear of plastics which are known to present health risks.


  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), bearing the #3 recycling code, is the most toxic plastic from both an environmental and human health standpoint. Avoid plastic toys, shower curtains and other products with a strong chemical smell.

  • Avoid polystyrene (styrofoam®) (recycling code #6) cups and food containers.

  • Avoid polycarbonate bottles and containers (recycling code #7)​

  • Keep in mind that a microwavable-label on a plastic container only means it will not break or melt in the microwave. It does not address the fact that certain chemicals will leach more readily from plastic when heated. Foods with a high fat content present the greatest risk, as many chemicals used in plastic are lipophilic (fat-loving). To avoid this risk, never use plastic containers to heat food, especially for babies.

  • To heat or store food, use glass, stainless steel or lead-free ceramic containers.

Related Podcasts from Green Street
Our Plastic Ocean with Erica Cirino

Hooked on Plastics with Dr. Jodi Sherman

Drowning in Plastic with Judith Enck
Large Water Container