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An epiphany on plastic

A couple of years ago, while walking on a man-made reed mat floating on Peru’s Lake Titicaca I saw something disturbing.

A couple of years ago, while walking on a man-made reed mat floating on Peru’s Lake Titicaca I saw something disturbing.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

And the troubling sight has taken on new meaning in the last year or so.

I was visiting the Uros, a small group of people who drift around Titicaca on islands they build from totora, an aquatic reed.

I saw an old woman — she was probably 45 (life’s pretty tough in Peru) — cooking something over an open fire in a metal pot.

But it was the lid that caught my eye.

She was using a tattered black plastic bag.

The woman had it draped over the bubbling pot. The flames licking up the sides of the blackened cauldron were melting its edges, forcing her to remove it frequently.

It certainly wasn’t the most efficient lid.

These ancient people haven’t figured out the dangers of modern plastic, I thought.

And, looking at the melting bag, I decided to skip lunch among the Uros.

Fast forward two years.

Staff at this paper were exploring the dangers of bisphenol A.

The chemical mimics estrogen, and exposures to trace amounts have been linked to breast and prostate cancers, according to research published in the journal Nature.

Bisphenol A is used in polycarbonate water bottles. But what many don’t know is that it is also used in food and beverage cans as a shield to prevent the sugars and acids from corroding the metals.

Unfortunately, those same sugars and acids do wash bisphenol A from the plastic, creating an estrogen cocktail in those same containers.

“It was an act of insanity,” said Frederick vom Saal, a development biologist and lead scientist in the Nature study.

“It’s mad to make plastic out of a chemical known to act like a sex hormone, which has been known since the 1930s when it was considered for use as a drug.”

The chemical is held in the plastic by an incredibly unstable bond that dissolves under heat, said the University of Missouri professor.

“It’s not complex chemistry.”

Putting a bottle in the microwave or adding boiling water is enough to cause the chemical to leech into the water.

These are things we do all the time, especially considering that the plastic is used to make baby bottles.

Vom Saal is following up his early work with a new study due to be published next week in the peer-reviewed journal Reproductive Toxicology.

It suggests the chemical is far more dangerous to infants and children than adults because their developing kidneys cannot produce an enzyme that breaks down the chemical, allowing it to be flushed from the body, according to an article in Friday’s Globe and Mail.

Bisphenol A is also widely used in plastic baby bottles and formula packaging.

Nestle and Mead Johnson Nutritionals, which manufacture baby formula, dismissed vom Saal’s concerns, according to the Globe.

Health Canada and US Food and Drug officials have approved the chemical for use, Nestle told the Globe.

Health Canada is currently evaluating the potential danger of bisphenol A. It is slated to issue its evaluation in May.

Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada’s largest outdoor retailer, is not waiting for the study. Concerned about the health risks of bisphenol A, it pulled polycarbonate products from its shelves. Locally, Coast Mountain has done the same.

Which brings us full circle.

On the cusp of our publication of the story on bisphenol A, I went to reheat some soup in the microwave in a Ziploc container.

At that moment, I recalled my horror at an elderly woman on Lake Titicaca hunched over an open fire draping a black plastic bag over a cauldron of soup.

I remember thinking how her backward culture hadn’t cottoned on to the dangers of modern chemicals.

I took a second look at the plastic container.

And I transferred the soup to a glass bowl.