No- this not a spinoff of Survivor in which the goal is to stay alive without the benefit of a new phone, plastic tooth- and toilet brushes, Tupperware, and laundry baskets.
It could be, except reality TV isn't exactly reality, but the attempts of an Austrian family of five to spend six years trying to avoid contact with any plastic are very real (1).
I'll leave it to you to decide whether adopting such a lifestyle is worthwhile or not, but at the very least, it provided a group of scientists in Vienna an opportunity to study what happens to people when they scrupulously avoid all contact with plastic products for a period of time.
The results will probably surprise you. They are published in a paper entitled "Life without plastic: A family experiment and biomonitoring study," which just appeared in the journal Environmental Research.
The purpose of the study was to monitor the topic du "every jour"—endocrine disruptors, which are found everywhere in the galaxy, and are cited as the reason for pretty much any health problem that you can imagine. Worse still, endocrine disruptors are typically regarded as nasty "synthetic chemicals," (2) so it is not at all surprising that there is much focus on the chemicals in plastic, both because of it ubiquity and less-than-marvelous reputation. Some people just hate plastic. Perhaps this is the real meaning of the term "substance abuse."
The Vienna group slightly modified the already-stringent practices of the family, and monitored the presence of each family member both before, and after a two-month period during which time all exposure to any plastic was either eliminated or greatly reduced.
The data speak from themselves. More accurately, they don't really speak at all. Nothing happened. Nothing.
There are 15 urinary chemicals that are measured. Below are select examples. (3)
The first problem is rather clear. If you read enough environmental journals you will conclude that BPA (bisphenol-A) is freshly delivered from Satan's kitchen, and coursing through our veins in massive quantities. Hardly.
BLOD = Below limit of detection; concentrations are expressed in micrograms per liter
No one in the family had BPA in their urine, either before or after the two-month period. The number (red circle) for the father is probably meaningless, since it is at the lower limit of the level of detection. Let's call this one a wash.
Not this one (4):
MEP, Monoethyl phthalate is the metabolite of diethyl phthalate (a plasticizer)
Now we go into Crazyland. Of the five family members, three had significant increases in the amount of MEP after being without plastic for two months, one had a significant decrease, and the fifth remained the same. Good luck interpreting this.
It doesn't get any better with other plastic chemicals:
With mono-n-butyl phthalate (MnBP), we see the same chaos. Two family member have risen after two months in the absence of plastic, one has decreased, and the fifth is the same.
In fact, every single chemical that is found in a meaningful amount (7 of the 15) shows the same pattern—random numbers—with various people having either more, less or the same amount of chemicals in their urine at the beginning and end of the study.
Which can only mean one thing—none of this means anything.
Five pages of excruciating detail to prove that it makes no difference whether one is exposed to plastic or not. Just being alive will bring you into contact with traces of thousands of chemicals that in such low concentrations that they are a blade of grass on a football field to your body.
So, you can now all relax, and go back to what you've been craving the most, but have been afraid to touch:
Another one for the scrap heap, folks.
(1) The blog that describes the family's efforts in in German, and the link may or may not work.
(2) For every synthetic endocrine disruptor, there are a whole bunch more of natural ones.
(3) Most of the 15 chemicals that were measured could not be detected. I have concentrated on the ones that could be measured.
(4) Data from a different study