How Plastics Can Affect Your Love Life

Most of the attention on phthalates, a group of hormone-disrupting chemicals found in PVC plastics, has been focused on fetal and child health, particularly regarding genital and behavioral development. Recent data have shown, for example, “incomplete virilization in infant boys” and reduced masculine play as they grow up, and for girls, an earlier onset of puberty. What about affecting hormonal function in adults? I explore this in my video Avoiding Adult Exposure to Phthalates.

Men exposed to high levels of phthalate had lower testosterone levels, but that was for workers in a plastics plant. In the general population, the evidence is mixed. A study in Sweden of men in their 20s found no effect on testosterone, whereas a U.S. study on men in their 30s did find an effect, even at levels of exposure much lower than those of factory workers. When there’s conflicting evidence like this, ideally we’d put it to the test, but you can’t ethically expose people to phthalates so scientists have come up with convoluted methods like implanting the testicles from human fetuses into mice to keep them growing. We want to know about the effects on adult, not fetal, testicles, which had been harder to procure… until recently. “[C]onsent was obtained from all donors.” Now, I’ve heard of blood donors, but this is a whole other level. Researchers obtained donated testicles from prostate cancer patients who underwent castration to control their disease and, indeed, were able to get direct evidence that phthalates can inhibit testosterone production at the kinds of levels one sees in general population studies.

What about breast cancer, the number-one cancer killer of young women? Women working in automotive plastics and food canning are at five times the odds of breast cancer, suggesting a link. In a petri dish, however, phthalates didn’t seem to accelerate breast cancer growth at the levels of exposure expected in the general population. More recently, though, phthalate exposure was found to boost breast cancer cell growth in vitro at the levels found circulating in the bodies of many women. Therefore, the maximum tolerable dose set by governments should be re-evaluated.

How do you avoid the stuff? Well, when you think of plastic chemicals, you may think of water bottles, but they appear to play only a minor role. Most phthalates come from food. How do we know this? If you take people and have them stop eating for a few days, you get a significant drop in the amount of phthalates spilling into their urine. Fasting isn’t exactly sustainable, though. Thankfully, we can see similar drops from simply eating a plant-based diet for a few days, which gives us a clue as to where most phthalates are found. There were a few cases of spikes within the fasting period after showers, however, suggesting contamination in personal care products.

We can counsel patients to reduce phthalate exposures by avoiding the use of scented personal care products, soaps, and cosmetics, since phthalates are used as a fragrance carrier. Phthalates can also be found in children’s toys, as well as adult toys. “On behalf of the Danish [Environmental Protection Agency] EPA, [the Danish Technological Institute] DTI has made inquiries about the consumption pattern in connection with the use of sex toys made of rubber or plastics” to see what kind of exposure one might get “based on worst case scenarios.” Those working behind the counters at sex shops “proved to possess very little knowledge of the materials,” so the researchers had to do their own testing. It turns out that “jelly” is plasticized PVC—up to two-thirds phthalates by weight. Though the use of water-based lubricants may reduce the health risks 100-fold, phthalate exposure through lubricants may still have the opposite of the intended effect. Women with the highest levels of phthalates flowing through their bodies “had over 2.5 times the odds of reporting a lack of interest in sexual activity,” and these weren’t women in a canning factory, rather they were at typical exposure levels in America.


To find out how to lower your exposure to phthalates, see What Diet Best Lowers Phthalate Exposure?

More on hormone-disrupting chemicals in our food supply in:

Interested in learning more about improving sexual health? See:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Concerns About Bone Broth

There are toxicological issues associated with production and processing of meat, such as the presence of various toxic contaminants—from dioxins and PCBs to cooked meat carcinogens. Carcinogenesis, the development of cancer, may be the main concern, but there are a number of other toxic responses connected with the consumption of meat products. Lead, for example, can be toxic to the nerves, gastrointestinal tract, bone marrow, and kidneys.

Where is lead found in the food supply? In general terms, the highest levels of lead, as well as arsenic and mercury, are found in fish. Sardines have the most arsenic, but tuna may have sardines beat when it comes to mercury and lead.

The problem is that “fish-consumption advisories related to human health protection do not consider the fish by-products fed to farmed animals,” like farmed fish. If some tilapia are fed tuna by-products, they could bioaccumulate heavy metals and pass them onto us when we eat them. Researchers found the highest levels in frozen sole fillets, averaging above the legal limit for lead.

Lead exposure has been shown to have adverse effects on nearly every organ system in the body. Symptoms of chronic exposure range from memory loss and constipation to impotence and depression. These symptoms present after pretty hefty exposure, though. However, we now know that “[b]lood lead levels in the range currently considered acceptable are associated with increased prevalence of gout and hyperuricemia” (elevated levels of uric acid in the blood). According to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, a blood lead level needs to be less than 25 micrograms per deciliter to be “non-elevated.” You’d assume that at values under 25, there’d be no relationship with health outcomes, but even throughout this “acceptable” range, lower lead means lower uric acid levels and lower gout risk. So, even blood lead levels 20 times below the acceptable level can be associated with increased prevalence of gout. “These data suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ level of exposure to lead.” 

Once lead gets into the body, it tends to stay in the body. It builds up in the bones such that it may take 30 years just to get rid of half. The best strategy? Don’t get exposed in the first place.

If lead builds up in bones, though, what about boiling bones for broth? As I discuss in my video Lead Contamination in Bone Broth, we know bones sequester lead, which can then leach from the bones. So, researchers suggested that “the bones of farmyard animals will sequester lead, some of which will then be released into broth during its preparation.” Who eats bone broth? Bone broth consumption is encouraged by many advocates of the paleo diet. Online, you can learn all about purported “benefits” of bone broth, but what they don’t tend to mention is the theoretical risk of lead contamination—or at least it was theoretical until now. Broth made from chicken bones was to have markedly high lead concentrations, up to a ten-fold increase in lead. Researchers concluded, “In view of the dangers of lead consumption to the human body, we recommend that doctors and nutritionists take the risk of lead contamination into consideration when advising patients about bone broth diets.”

But what if you only use bones from organic, free-range chickens? They did use only bones from organic, free-range chickens.


For more on the paleo diet, see:

Other products contaminated with lead include Ayurvedic supplements, protein powders, wild animals shot with lead ammunition, dairy products, and tea from China:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Where to Buy Tea Low in Lead

China burns about half of the world’s coal, spewing heavy metals such as mercury and lead into the atmosphere that affect the development of neighboring children. What if you don’t live in China or eat anything produced there? You could still be exposed to the mercury that settles in the oceans if you eat fish and other seafood. What if you drink something from China? Tea. China is one of the world’s biggest tea exporters, but their rapid industrialization has raised concerns about contamination with lead, a toxin that can affect almost every organ in the body. The more lead there is in the soil, the more lead there is that ends up in the tea leaves. And, the closer to the highway the tea is grown, the higher the lead levels. This suggests that leaded gas, which wasn’t banned in China until the year 2000, may be playing a role in the contamination of tea grown there.

Just like larger and longer-living fish accumulate more mercury, longer-living tea leaves accumulate more lead. Young tea leaves appear to have two to six times less lead than mature leaves, so the young leaves that are used to make green and white tea have significantly less lead than the older leaves used to make black and oolong tea. As well, the lead in black and oolong tea appears to be released much more readily into the tea water when brewed. This means the health risk from lead may be 100 times lower for green tea compared to oolong and black.

Because certain fungicides may have heavy metal impurities, one might assume organic teas would be less contaminated. However, a study of 30 common teas taken from North American store shelves showed no less toxic element contamination in organic teas than regular teas, though, organic teas would presumably have much less pesticide contamination. In terms of lead, the source of the tea—that is, the country of origin—appears to be the most important factor.

So, how much tea is safe to drink? Based on the most stringent safety limits in the world, such as California’s Prop 65 parameters, and the largest studies of tea lead contamination from around the world, I was able to come up with guidelines I outline in my video Lead Contamination of Tea.

If you’re not pregnant and drinking only green tea, it doesn’t matter where you get your tea. You can drink as much as you want, as long as you’re drinking the green tea and throwing away the leaves or bags. Given the average levels of lead in Chinese black tea samples, however, more than three cups a day would exceed the daily safety limit for lead. What if you’re eating tea leaves—for example, drinking matcha tea, which is powdered green tea—or throwing tea leaves into your smoothie like I do? In that case, two or three heaping teaspoons is the limit. The exception is Japanese green tea, which is so low in lead that you can safely eat 15 spoonfuls per day, but I caution consuming more than 8 teaspoons given the risk of exceeding the daily recommended limit for caffeine intake for adults.

What about children? For a 70-pound 10-year-old, lead isn’t a problem if they’re drinking green tea. But the safe caffeine intake for children is probably around three milligrams per kilogram, which would limit a child to about four cups of green tea per day. For caffeine reasons, I recommend adding no more than two spoonfuls of Japanese green tea to a child’s smoothie. And for lead reasons, children should have no more than one teaspoon of Chinese green tea leaves. When it comes to black tea, children shouldn’t drink more than one cup per day and should not eat the tea leaves at all.

Pregnant women should be able to drink one cup of green tea per day throughout pregnancy, regardless of source. The limit for Japanese green tea is really just the caffeine limit of about four cups per day. I do not recommend drinking black tea during pregnancy or eating any kind of tea leaves, unless you know you’re getting tea from a low lead source.


I’ve long been an advocate of teas, but the information I’ve shared with you here has led me to change my daily diet. If you look at my smoothie recipe in A Better Breakfast, for example, you’ll see I’ve recommended throwing in tea leaves, and Is Matcha Good for You? doesn’t hide the fact that I’ve been a big fan of matcha. I still enjoy both, but am now more careful about where my tea is sourced. As soon as I learned of this, I made announcements on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to inform everyone. So, if you closely follow my recommendations (which I elaborate on extensively in my book, How Not to Die), please make sure to keep an eye on our social media where I can post updates within minutes of learning about the latest news.

I’ve got a whole slew of tea videos, including:

Where else might you find heavy metal risk (besides my music collection :)?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

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