How to Avoid Unsafe Plastics

February 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm 5 comments

All plastics are rated using a number system. Understanding what those numbers mean can help people do more than recycle, it can help them avoid dangerous chemicals.

More than ever people are concerned about the products in their lives, especially when it comes to plastic. There are concerns over the safety of some of the ingredients used in plastics, particularly bisphenol A. Fortunately there are codes on the bottom of all plastics which can help the health conscientious consumer stay informed. Here is what the codes mean and a guide to which plastics should be avoided due to potential toxicity.

Number 1Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

This is found in many single-use products such as soft drinks, mouthwashes, salad dressing and other similar items. It is lightweight, inexpensive and fairly easy to recycle. Number one plastics are considered safe and are not known to leach chemicals, but they are not safe for reuse so never refill any container made from this plastic. Also, never heat foods in number one plastic containers either.

Number 2 – High density polyethylene (HDPE)

This plastic is used for items like milk jugs, trash bags, margarine tubs and packaging products. It is inexpensive, versatile and quite durable. It is also easily recyclable, with recycling programs available in most communities. Number two plastic is considered safe and isn’t known to leach chemicals. But, like most plastics, it’s wise to never heat food or liquid products in them.

Number 3 – Polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC)

This plastic is used to make bottles for cleaning agents, shower curtains, industry plastics and the cling wraps used to wrap deli meat and cheeses. It isn’t generally recycled but some programs will accept it. Number three plastic is not safe due to a chemical used to keep it so flexible which can leach out into food products. This plastic has di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate in it, which is a carcinogen. It also contains chlorine and will release dangerous toxins if burned.

Number 4 – Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

This plastic can be found in things like frozen food bags, squeezable bottles, grocery bags and some clothing, carpeting and furniture upholstery. It is flexible, durable and has many applications in industry. Number four plastic isn’t known to be dangerous or leach any chemicals into consumer products. It is not widely recycled but a handful of community programs will accept it.

Number 5 – Polypropylene (PP)

This plastic can be found in items like ketchup bottles, straws, medication bottles, some carpet and most bottle caps. It has a high melting point so it is also used for containers that will hold hot liquid. Number five plastic is hazardous during production but once made, it isn’t known to leach chemicals. It is typically used in items that aren’t reused and has a high melting point, which might contribute to it’s sturdiness and reduced risk of leaching. Not every community can recycle number five plastic.

Number 6 – Polystyrene (PS)

This plastic is used for items that must be hard and retain their shape, like cups, opaque plastic utensils, some toys, carry-out containers and compact disc cases. It is also used for foam insulation. Number six plastic isn’t generally recycled and is not considered safe by most experts. Benzene, a known carcinogen, is used during its production and the final product contains butadiene and styrene, both suspected carcinogens. It takes a lot of energy to produce and should be avoided, so watch out for take out food containers made from it.

Number 7 – Other

Number seven is a catch-all category for any number of plastics but often contains polycarbonate. It is often found in baby bottles, five-gallon water jugs, microwave containers, liners for metal cans, and plastic eating utensils. Very few recycling programs exist for this type of plastic. Number seven plastic is widely regarded as unsafe since it has bisphenol A, a hormone disruptor which mimics estrogen and is linked to breast cancer. This plastic is known to readily leach this chemical out into food. Infant formula and canned food has tested positive for biphenyl-A after being placed in metal cans lined with number seven plastic. It’s a good idea try to always avoid number seven plastic.



Entry filed under: Health Hazards, Home and Health. Tags: , , , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. greenwish  |  March 30, 2012 at 7:22 am

    I have a question for you…..
    A friend of mine is trying to create a cottage industry for developing countries by melting used plastic bottle caps and molding them into rounded shapes to be used to make beaded jewelry which can be sold in developed countries as wearable art.
    I want to know if you think the process of melting and molding the plastic by hand would be harmful to humans? Would the fumes be toxic or would the chemicals be able to transfer through the skin and be dangerous to health?
    hope you can help.

    • 2. smartklean  |  April 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm


      We’re not sure about the levels of toxicity that your friend would be exposed to, but all we can advice is that she wears protective gear to minimize all risks. Hope this helps and good luck to your friend.

      • 3. greenwish  |  April 9, 2012 at 8:01 am

        Thank for your reply. This type of recycling is scaring me. After researching this for a little while I am starting to think that even if the risk is small as you say, it is still a risk.
        I doubt that the poor women in Kenya would have access to any kind of protective gear. My friend will have to find another way to save the world.

  • 4. smartklean  |  February 28, 2011 at 4:56 am

    The US EPA has described styrene as “a suspected carcinogen” and “a suspected toxin to the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, and respiratory system, among others.”

  • 5. Priscilla  |  February 27, 2011 at 3:48 am

    No authoritative or regulatory body anywhere in the world classifies styrene to be a known cause of human cancer. Moreover, a study conducted by a “blue ribbon” panel of epidemiologists and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (November 2009) reports: “The evidence of human carcinogenicity of styrene is inconsistent and weak. On the basis of the available evidence, one cannot conclude that there is a causal relationship between styrene and any type of human cancer.” Further, polystyrene containers for food have been used safely for more than 50 years, having been tested and deemed safe by government agencies. Any minuscule amount of styrene that may migrate out of polystyrene containers into food is far too small to be of any health concern.

    Priscilla Briones for the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), Arlington, Virginia. SIRC ( is a trade association representing interests of the North American styrene industry with its mission being the collection, development, analysis and communication of pertinent information on styrene.


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