Is that Smelly Plastic from China Toxic?

smelly plastic from china

Photo by Horia Varlan

Ever wonder why some rubberized plastic goods made in China have that awful smell? Research and testing is increasingly illustrating that these goods may not just smell bad. They may also be outgassing potent toxins and carcinogens.

PVC Toxicity 

Testing has found that polyvinyl chloride (PVC) goods – a form of plastic used in many rubberized toys, tool handles, and many other goods – can contain several toxic plasticizers and stabilizers such as tributyltin and dibutylphthalates.

PVC is made from converting chlorine gas to ethylene dichloride. This is then converted to vinyl chloride monomer and then PVC. Vinyl chloride is classified by the EPA as a known human carcinogen. It causes liver cancer and damages the central nervous system. While vinyl chloride supposedly doesn’t leak from finished PVC, dibutylphthalate (DBP) and di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) definitely outgass from PVC.

Toys and so many other consumer goods are transferring these plasticizers onto our skin as we touch them. A 2015 study from Virginia Tech University tested six backpacks and seven toys. The researchers conducted wipe testing to see how much plasticers were transferring onto the skin of children. They found that the toys transferred the plasticizer Bis(2-ethylhexyl) terephthalate (DEHT) in direct correlation to the size of the toy or packback. The bigger the toy or pack, the more plasticizer would transfer onto the skin.

Dibutylphthalate Release

Tests have shown that dibutylphthalate (DBP) is released into the air from PVC flooring and other PVCs. Worse, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) can also be released. DBP and DEHP have both been associated with hormone disruption, and DEHP has been linked with heart cell dysfunction and obesity. For these reasons, DEHP-containing toys have been banned in some countries (but not in the U.S.).

New Soft Plastics Also Disrupt Hormones

Over the past couple of years, di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP) has been used as a replacement plasticizer for DEHP due to the hormone-disruption effects of DEHP. But a 2014 study of 196 boys from Sweden’s Karlstad University has found that DiNP also appears to significantly disrupt male androgenic hormones – as measured by anogenital distance (the distance measured from the genitals to the anus).

Ethylene dichloride from PVC is a possible carcinogen, and inhaling its vapor can effect the liver, kidneys, lungs and heart. It can cause nausea, cardiac arrhythmia, vomiting and damage to kidneys, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Recycled Plastics and Tires

New manufacturing innovations from China have allowed manufacturers to use a variety of recycled plastics to make their goods – and America famously ships much of its plastic recycling to China. One such manufacturing innovation is using recycled tires. This form of rubberized plastic utilizes benzene and other hydrocarbons such as ethylbenzene, xylene and toluene. Benzene is a known carcinogen. Benzene and other hydrocarbons can offgass from goods for years after manufacture.

Consumers can quite easily smell products made using recycled tire rubber, as they maintain a smell quite similar to worn tires.

Inhaling benzene can produce headaches, drowsiness, confusion, headaches and rapid heart beat. At higher concentrations, death can result from benzene inhalation.

Tetrachloroethylene – or perchloroethylene – can also outgass from some rubberized plastics. Tetrachloroethylene can cause similar symptoms to those of benzene inhalation.

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What are Organotins?

For decades, mercury and lead were used to stabilize the hydrocarbons used to make plastics. As growing evidence revealed lead and mercury contamination from these plastics, a new type of metal compound, called organotin, is now predominantly used to stabilize (harden) the plastic during processing.

A November 2010 study of plastic toys written by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, found that about 20% of toys sold in a large U.S. mass market toys retailer likely contain organotins.

Organitins such as tributyltin have been used for anti-fouling paints on boats and fungicides. These uses alone indicate their potential toxicity. Research has found that TBT is an endocrine disruptor: It interferes with hormone reception and availability. TBT has been found to increase masculinity among marine life, as it tends to increase testosterone and decrease estrogen availability. In vitro tests have shown that TBT can also interfere with cellular differentiation processes.

The November 2010 toy study also found that 81% of toys for children 18 to 36 months old contained chlorine – indicative of being made with PVC. And it found that 6% of toys contained lead. 98% of all toys found in this mass market retailer were made in China. And none were labeled as containing lead, cadmium or organotins – which many contained.

Research from South Africa’s Cape Peninsula University of Technology found organotins to be one of the most critical global threats to the environment, including aquatic life. They compared organotin exposure to mercury exposure in terms of potential toxicity.

Environmental Effects of These Plastics

These issues do not even touch the damage that PVC and rubberized plastic production and destruction have on our environment. A number of dangerous toxins are released into the environment from the processing of the hydrocarbons.

Dioxin is one. While PVC products supposedly do not release dioxin when they are in finished form, dioxin is a byproduct of their production and their destruction. This means that burning PVC products can be quite hazardous. Dioxin is considered a human carcinogen and has proven dangerous to marine life and animal life. Dioxin is at least released when PVC is burned. It should also be assumed that dioxin can also be released when PVC products are left heating in the sun or other heat source.

The Dark Side of Recycling

While recycling is good for the environment, plastic types can become inadvertently mixed together during the process. PVC containers can easily contaminate a PET-plastic load during recycling. This results in products that are supposedly made with PET plastic containing PVC. While PET is the plastic of choice for food packaging, plastic bottles and other sensitive uses, most health experts agree that PVC contact with food is not advisable.

If a plastic product has any smell, it is best to avoid purchasing it. This smell indicates that the plastic is offgassing. Offgassing releases part of the plasticizer or stabilizer into the surrounding air, and into the lungs and eyes. It can also release onto the skin to be absorbed into the body.

Many experts agree that avoiding contact with rubberized plastics using PVC is a good idea, although it is not always practical given today’s marketplace. Because Chinese-made rubberized plastic goods may have used recycled PVC plastics as well as rubber in their formulations, any plastic goods from China should probably be given the smell test before buying.

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REFERENCES:

Xie M, Wu Y, Little JC, Marr LC. Phthalates and alternative plasticizers and potential for contact exposure from children’s backpacks and toys. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2015 Nov 4. doi: 10.1038/jes.2015.71.

Grün F, Blumberg B. Environmental obesogens: organotins and endocrine disruption via nuclear receptor signaling. Endocrinology. 2006 Jun;147(6 Suppl):S50-5.

Clausen PA, Liu Z, Kofoed-Sørensen V, Little J, Wolkoff P. Influence of Temperature on the Emission of Di-(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) from PVC Flooring in the Emission Cell FLEC. Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Jan 17;46(2):909-15.

Bornehag CG, Carlstedt F, Jönsson BA, Lindh CH, Jensen TK, Bodin A, Jonsson C, Janson S, Swan SH. Prenatal Phthalate Exposures and Anogenital Distance in
Swedish Boys. Environ Health Perspect. 2014 Oct 29.

Afshari A, Gunnarsen L, Clausen PA, Hansen V. Emission of phthalates from PVC and other materials. Indoor Air. 2004 Apr;14(2):120-8.

Center of Health, Invironment & Justice/Teamsters Office of Consumer Affairs. PVC Toxic Chemicals in Toys and Packaging. A Report to the National Commission of Inquiry into Toxic Toys. 2010. Nov.

Okoro HK, Fatoki OS, Adekola FA, Ximba BJ, Snyman RG, Opeolu B. Human exposure, biomarkers, and fate of organotins in the environment. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2011;213:27-54. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4419-9860-6_2.

Adams C. The Living Cleanse: Detoxification and Cleansing Using Living Foods and Safe Natural Strategies. Logical Books, 2012

Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn ones health around. As I drove home that night, I realized I needed to get this knowledge out to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.” Case connects with the elements by surfing, hiking and being a beach bum.

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