Additives in Plastic
Although every plastic has specific qualities, these can be modified in the production process as required and adapted to suit different needs by blending with other polymers or by the use of additives. There are concerns about the impact on health and the environment of a number of the substances used. Today certain phthalates (plasticizers), Bisphenol A and various flame retardants are regarded as particularly problematic. Several of these substances are now banned, other are presently being examined in the framework of the REACH regulation (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals according to the «no data, no market» principle), which came into force in 2007.
As there are no obligatory declaration laws for plastics and the additives they contain, and producers keep the composition of materials secret, it is often very difficult for consumers to tell harmful products from harmless ones, and practically impossible to check whether bans or limits have been observed.
Phthalate are used as plasticizers, above all in PVC where they generally make up between 30 and 35 per cent of the material. They make the otherwise hard and brittle material into an elastic, soft plastic. In Western Europe about one million tons of phthalates are used every year, the five most common are DIDP, DINP, DEHP, DBP und BBP.
Soft PVC and the phthalates it contains are found in many products that we use daily, for instance flooring, wallpapers, shower curtains, paints and varnishes, packaging and cosmetics, in sport and leisure articles as well as in childcare articles and children’s toys. In the construction industry this material is used for cables, conduits or to seal roofs, in the automotive industry for underbody protection, seals, interior linings and for truck tarpaulins, and in the medical-technical field soft PVC is used to make infusion bags and tubes or for enteric coating for tablets.
Plasticizers are not bound in plastic and can evaporate or dissolve through contact with liquids and fats. It is suspected that the largest amount of plasticizers enters the environment during use of the product. Phthalates can be taken in through food, saliva, by breathing or through the skin, and they also collect in house dust.
As the German Bundesumweltamt (Federal Environment Agency) noted in a summarizing study, a number of phthalates can pose a danger to human reproduction, while it is suspected that others concentrate in the environment. The EU has declared several plasticizers toxic to the human reproductive system and has banned their use in childcare articles and children’s toys.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical that is found in many everyday products and the dangers it may pose to health and the environment have been a subject of controversy for many years. In 2006 3.8 million tons were produced worldwide, a major part of this in Europe. It is a main element in the production of polycarbonate and is used for instance in the casings of electrical and electronic appliances, bottles and containers for foods, compact discs or in the field of medicine. Additionally epoxy resins made from Bisphenol A are used as varnishes to coat surfaces or to coat the insides of drink and food cans, drink canisters and drainage pipes. And Bisphenol A is used as an additive for coating thermo-paper, to slow down the aging process of PVC, or as a stabilizer in brake fluids.
Bisphenol A is a substance with high mobility and a hormone-like effect. The chemical can be released by objects and coatings and can thus enter the human body through food or the skin where probably even small doses can have a negative effect on the hormone system. Risks exist above all with regard to sexuality and reproductive health, diabetes, overweight, cardio-vascular disease, as well as intellectual development and behavior.
Although European authorities and also Switzerland emphasize that, if used correctly, Bisphenol A is harmless, other countries do not exclude the possibility of damage to consumer health and prefer to adopt a more precautionary approach. In 2008/09 tests carried out on baby bottles and soothers produced worrying results. In Canada baby bottles made from polycarbonate containing Bisphenol A have been banned since 2008 and in the European Union a similar ban has been in force since 2011.
Plastic in Children’s Rooms
Where babies and children who are still at the development stage and often make intensive use of the objects in their surroundings are concerned, consumers cannot be too careful as regards materials and additives. Products for babies, children’s toys and the furniture in children’s rooms should be made of harmless materials and should carry recognized signs. The CE sign only confirms that the products meet the less stringent European guidelines, better are protected quality seals with stricter requirements which, however, differ from country to country. Nowadays harmless or safe products are often clearly marked as such.
Before buying an item purchasers should look carefully at the product and any declarations on it, while also checking the name and origins of the producer, the production quality, the stability and the absence of smells. Less and higher quality rather than more and cheap can serve as a good general guide.