Do plastic bottles or food containers cause cancer?

Plastic bottle

There is no good evidence that using plastic bottles or plastic containers increases the risk of cancer.


What’s the myth?

There have been claims that chemicals in plastics can leach into food or drink and cause cancer. In particular, there have been rumours about chemicals called Bisphenol A (BPA) and dioxins. Hoax emails have spread warnings about dioxins being released when plastic containers are reused heated or frozen. These are credited to Johns Hopkins University in America, but the university denies any involvement.


What is the evidence?

Some studies have shown that small amounts of chemicals from plastic containers can end up in the food or drinks that are kept inside them. But the levels of these are very low.

In some experiments, plastic bottles are heated to high temperatures for many hours. Even at temperatures as high as 60⁰C, levels of chemicals that move into food are drink are still very low. They are usually far under levels that are considered unsafe.

Studies may also look at the effect of these chemicals on human cells. But they will often expose them to much higher levels than people are exposed to in real life. These levels are also much higher than the limits which are allowed in plastic by law.  There is no evidence to show using plastic containers actually causes cancer in humans.

The European Food Safety Authority did a full scientific review of BPA in 2015 and decided there was no health risk to people of any age (including unborn children) at current BPA exposure levels. They are due to update this in 2018.

In the UK there is very strict regulation about plastics and other materials that are used for food or drink. These limits are well below the level which could cause harm in humans. 

EFSA. Scientific Opinion on the risks to public health related to the presence of isphenol A (BPA) in foodstuffs: PART II - Toxicological assessment and risk characterisation. EFSA J. 2015;13(2):4002. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2015.4002

IARC. Monograph 77: Some Industrial Chemcials. 2000;77

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