Guest Articles >> Natural Health

Toxic Plastics: Bakelite, the Silent Killer

By Barbara O'Brien

Right around the turn-of-the-century, the manufacturing of plastics exploded as the demand for the versatile and inexpensive material took off.

One of the earliest and most adaptable forms of plastic is Bakelite, made with components including phenol and formaldehyde. Infiltrating virtually all aspects of our lives for decades, Bakelite manufacturing included jewelry, toys, electrical and insulation products. From floor to ceiling tiles and desirable collectibles, Bakelite permeated households for years.

Antiques enthusiasts clamor to enrich their collections with valuable and popular Bakelite dishes and jewelry. Beautifully designed and handcrafted, these items fetch a reasonable price on the collectors' market.

Beyond the beauty of these useful products, Bakelite products permeate every area of a typical home for decades.

What is Bakelite?

Bakelite Fish tank cover As one of the first manufactured and synthetic plastics, Bakelite was highly desirable for its non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties. At the height of manufacturing, Bakelite was lauded for its versatility and as the first artificial plastic.

Furthermore, there were different levels and variants of Bakelite that had numerous industrial and commercial applications.

What is it used for?

As previously mentioned, Bakelite was used in various industries from automobile and electrical fields. Industrial Bakelite products include radios, electrical and automobile distributor caps and wiring insulation.

Later, as the versatility of Bakelite was explored, a variety of products were manufactured. Musical instrument and camera parts, and at one point, Bakelite was considered a replacement for coins by the United States Mint.

Through the early 1960s, Bakelite became a highly desirable product. Houses were decorated with Bakelite: chess pieces, necklaces, bracelets, dishes and kitchen containers.

Today, part of the reason why Bakelite items are collectibles, are because of the fine artisanship. The market value is extremely high, due to the retro feel and limited quantities of certain products. For example, Bakelite jewelry is more rare than, say, dishes or cookware.

Why is it hazardous?

The dangerous nature of Bakelite is from different sources: manufacturing, collecting and disposing.

Since Bakelite is a manufactured, synthetic plastic containing incredible amounts of formaldehyde, asbestos and other extremely toxic polymers, those who produced these desirable products, put themselves at risk. At the time, safety and health precautions were not mandatory. These hardworking men and women exposed themselves to the toxins, through exposure.

Furthermore, though it seems a benign pastime, collecting Bakelite products also do pose a heath threat. If a Bakelite product breaks, the synthetic materials become airborne, and may result in inhalation, ingestion or direct skin contact. Bakelite collectibles are beautiful but deadly.

Just like any other plastic-based product, disposing Bakelite is extremely hazardous to the environment. With older home renovations at its peak, many people are unintentionally exposed to Bakelite from replacing ceiling or floor tiles. Even more, collectors are also susceptible to exposure especially if a dish or a bracelet is broken.

Besides the obvious danger to the environment to improper disposal of these products, there is a considerable and lingering health risk. Not only did these products contain formaldehyde, Bakelite contained asbestos, a known and hazardous toxin. Exposure to Bakelite dust may cause lung infections, mesothelioma and other respiratory complications. Though medical care for these conditions, including mesothelioma treatments, are improving through breakthroughs, there is still an on-going risk; not only for those who manufactured those products but also for those who own them.

Disposing these materials safely is critical. Many facilities carefully dispose of Bakelite products in a manner that is not hazardous to human or environmental health. To find a plastic recycling center near you, check out Earth911. This is how we can all do our part in cleaning up these harmful plastics and in turn, making our environment a better place. Find ways to substitute harmful plastics out of your daily routine. But if you must use them, dispose of them safely and cleanly

About the Author

Written by Barbara O'Brien.


The above guest post is published based on the premise that it will be helpful and informative. The opinions made within it are those of the author and not of The links you may find within this post do not necessarily imply our recommendation or endorsement of the views expressed within them.


Julie Rinard says:

Some bakelite buttons discolored the fabric behind them and the fabric of another jacket hanging next to them in my closet and over an unknown period of time, "burned" a hole through the fabric! Have you ever heard of such a thing? I had secured the thread knots behind the buttons with Fray Check. Do you think there was a chemical reaction in my closet?

sunny says:

Hi Julie,
thanks for your comment. The above was a guest article from Barbara O'Brien, so I hope she will care to comment on your question. I am not an expert in this matter, so please do not take my opinion for granted, but the damage could perhaps be related to the fact that bakelite is a combination of two substances, carbolic acid and formaldehyde? If the acid was somehow released, there would certainly be some sort of chemical reaction.

eti says:

So how dangerous exactly bakelite jewelry is?

sara says:

Is bakelite as bad as asbestos?

sunny says:

I would stay away from bakelite, including jewelry and other products.

Paul Littrell, Jr. says:

Maybe you can tell me--- where did Union Carbide Corporation manufacture Bakelite in the 1960's? Where were their Bakelite plants located? Thanks!

teresa says:

I bought two very old cans of antique buttons and unknowingly cleaned them by boiling them in hot soapy water. I did this for days because they were so filthy. I handled them over and over and while I did notice a certain odor... I did not know they contained formaldehyde. I became very ill and my skin became extremely painful and sensitive. It has been over a year and symptoms have only become worse. My life changed forever because of a fifty cent bargain at a yard sale. PLEASE be aware to never ever make the same mistake I did.

sunny says:

Thanks, teresa, for sharing with us your words of caution. At the same time, I am sorry to hear about your trouble. I hope you will find some way to relieve your symptoms. Many blessing.

Bryan says:

I would have to disagree with bakelite being dangerous by just having it around at all. I have several rotary phones and coffee pots with bakelite handles and have never experienced any ill effects through normal use (I.e. handling them when I'm using them, etc.). Certainly boiling bakelite is going to cause some problems, but that can be said of just about any chemical that you expose to extreme heat (remember when we found out that BPA leaches much more readily if you, say, leave a water bottle in your car?).

Besides that, no one here has addressed simply using common sense when handling synthetics, rather than overreacting and avoiding something entirely just because it has formaldehyde or possibly asbestos. For one thing, asbestos is only dangerous when it is friable (meaning that you can easily crush it into dust with your hands) so if it is locked to a matrix, like in a synthetic plastic, it cannot become airborne.

Also, as long as you aren't wearing bakelite on your skin all day everyday, I have to imagine that your risk is very low. My grandfather grew up when Bakelite was in almost everything and he lived to nearly 88 without what could be described as "plastic-handling related illnesses". Again, common sense goes a long way. Think about all the chemicals that we expose ourselves to in toothpaste and mouthwash and lotions and deodorants, etc, that we apply to our skin or ingest every single day, and yet here we are fussing over a plastic that is relatively harmless simply having some around. As long as you aren't trying to eat it or pulverize it into dust (or boil it...which I'm still baffled by) then you should be fine.

One final thought, where did the article writer get their information? They don't seem to be credentialed as a plastic manufacturing expert and they didn't cite any source material. Their conclusions could all be conjecture based on Wiki reading for all we know. I'm not claiming to be an expert either, but I have personal and family experience and a three-hour asbestos training course that I have to take every year to back up what I've written here. Take it or leave it if you like.

sunny says:

Thanks, Bryan. What your said about bakelite makes a lot of sense. Your clarifications and corrections are very much appreciated.

Bryan says:

Also, just a follow up...bakelite is created through an elimination process resulting in a very low, if any, toxicity. Additionally, it seems that asbestos based bakelite was reserved mostly for commercial or industrial applications and its use is not banned:

Please not the "at a glance section" showing that it is not friable. I'll grant you that the article mentions that repeated friction use can cause it to degrade and release dust, but a plastic handle on your phone (which will likely be a wood fiber or canvas based bakelite anyway) is not going to degrade like that. And with the low toxicity level, as long as you aren't doing anything to alter the chemical structure with reactive chemicals or extreme heat, your risk is going to be extremely low.

Cynthia says:

Bryan, I would have to disagree. The most commonly worn bakelite are plastic bangles. On wearing the jewelry, the heat of the body causes the bakelite to emit an odor, and even have a stain rub off on the skin. The way you test for an item of bakelite includes rubbing the item until it warms to the touch, so a strong formaldehyde odor is detected. These bracelets are highly popular by vintage collectors, but the smell alone is troublesome. Also wearing this jewelry means exposing the items to environmental changes, and possibly even breaking the items. While I understand you disagree with the safety of having the item in your home, I would just like to state how toxic this plastic smells when worn.

Alexander says:

Yesterday I was searching for a gold foil/screen tea infuser, which much like the coffee filters of the same type are non-reactive with the acids. Of course the screen has to be supported by something and in this case, a type of plastic. Regular infusers are often supported and made of stainless steel screen, foil or prefer metal. When I voiced concern about the lifespan of the plastic a male owner of the shop piped up, it's not plastic, it's Bakelite. This brought up vivid memories of lid handles and old heavy telephones of my youth. So it began...

My search of Bakelite led me to this discussion after first reading the wiki article on Bakelite. Although alluded to by Bryan, I dare-say much of the original article was all but plagarized from from the wiki article then imbued with personal opinion and confusion over Bakelite with and without asbestos reinforcement seasoned with a thread of chemistry kills, hide you daughters and run for the hills. (sorry about the mixed metaphors and hyperbole)

I think the usefulness of Bakelite is long past and much surpassed by modern plastics. Occasionally a manufacturer trots out the name and associates it with durability due to its early development (i.e. Our pots use genuine Bakelite handles to last the generations). Quite the opposite, Bakelite, is inferior to most modern high temperature polymers. It is brittle, lacks truly high temperature resistance, and degrades with repeated exposure to boiling water and/or steam. So never put your Bakelite handled lids in the oven.

That said, collecting Bakelite consumer products can be a rewarding pastime but there is a difference between collecting and wearing. If someone wishes to create their own little private Bakelite museum, why not, but this product has been surpassed in every practical way so it is probably not a good idea to use these items in every day life as originally intended. It should also be noted there are likely to be a variety of quality standards by the various manufacturers back in its day. The possibility that some products leach out or off gas toxic chemicals, especially if subjected to high heat is not to be discounted. Nor that some might be chemically sensitive to Bakelite or its decomposition byproducts. If you count yourself as part of this group, avoid Bakelite, but at the same time give you fellow travellers the dignity to make their own decisions based on facts not dogmatic statements, anecdotes or biased assumptions.

As with most things in life common sense avoids many problems.

By the way, the gold screen tea infuser support is made from a high temperature food grade polymer, not Bakelite. Now I have to go ask the owner of the tea shop to not misinform customers about the original plastic Bakelite.

sunny says:

Thanks, Alexander, for your 2 cents on the matter. After reading your comment, another question comes to mind, namely, how safe the modern plastic is. Probably not as dangerous as Bakelite, but I have seen some pretty discouraging reviews.

valentino says:

I've been collecting and wearing bakelite for 30 years and I've never had my bakelite "heat up and emit the tell-tale smell" while wearing it. Plus, my rockabilly dancer friends - who do sweat a lot - never smelled it coming from them or their jewelry either.

Ray says:

Hello, Interesting Comments. For the sake of clarifying something, most radio cabinets had Wood Pulp in them NOT asbestos. At the time these plastics were being produced, Asbestos was an expensive product and was not used by most Radio manufacturer. I know this from the Guys who are still alive and worked in the factories in Australia making radio cabinets.These guys are now in their 80's and 90's so if there was any of the nasties they would not still be around. Later on other cheaper and more stable plastics replaced bakelite. Another reason that in some cases you get discolouration of items next to this product is that Dye's were added to the wood and chemical mix to give them that Brown and other colours . Over time these dyes can evaporate and react with plastic or synthetic cloth or materials.

Even having UV exposure from the cloth with the vapour can cause a photo chemical reaction. In essence maybe somewhere some manufactures used other additives, but lookup what chemicals were used, They in their base states are very nasty but once stabilised into this plastic they are stable.

I think you should be more concerned with the plastic take away container your food comes in rather than Radio Cabinets guys.

sunnyray says:

Thanks for taking the time to comment Ray. Of course, you are spot on about the adverse effects of plastic food containers.

Deyana says:

Very interesting to read - thank you all for the input. I am very worried that the living room of the apartment my daughter in law lives in smells sometimes very strong as Bakelite. I am over 50 and remember well that smell. The apartment is in an old building in Hoboken, NJ, USA. How harmful is that, how to track where the smell comes from? I will be very thankful for advices and opinions.

GetAbrainFolks says:

I'm so happy some of the above pointed out the utter pointlessness of this article. You can go outside you house, anywhere on earth, and if you expose yourself to enough DIRT, you will be exposed to untold zillions of bacteria, viruses, and yes, RADIOACTIVE elements too many to list! Eat enough and surely you will react badly and/or die. This article is a perfect example of hypersinstitive (mentally not chemically) too many humans have become. I simply can't stand it, and also have to take issue with the entire premise. If you boil DIRT, as one idiot above did with bakelite, you'd almost certainly get the same reaction, and probably a dose of poison-ivy to boot. Grow up children! Stop feeding the lawyers!

Notworththerisk! says:

If you had a loved one with mesothelioma you would realise how dangerous asbestos is. Only takes one fibre to be inhaled or ingested. There is no cure! So if you feel I'm hypersensitive for agreeing with this article that's a title I accept.

Nathan says:

Rule one. Don't buy it. Two. Get rid of it. Your life is worth more! Death via cancer from asbestos is horrible,painful. Go to YouTube to find the victims, including a famous throat Doctor!

lydia says:

Misuse of the word 'Toxin'!

William says:

I've been in the electronic business over 50 years and have worked with Bakelite for decades with no ill results. You have to realize there are many fibers that could be used to make the product. Industrial equipment that required high temp, protection used asbestos. Its highly unlikely you'd ever come in contact with that unless you worked in an industry that used it. Anything mentioned here by posters wouldn't need to be high temp.

Also heating or boiling Bakelite isn't going to change it back into formaldehyde. If you believe it does you simply don't understand anything about chemistry. Now if you ground it op into a fine powder and breathed it in I'm sure it wouldn't be very good for you health, but in a solid form, its actually one of the safer plastics. I'd be more worried about your soft plastic water and coke bottles which give off Dioxin BPA and Bisphenol associated with a whole host of health issues including birth defects, cancer. A variety of things

Most Bakelite today is antique and any liquid chemicals that could emit vapors after manufacturing would have evaporated many decades ago.

If you google the MSDS Safety sheets required by the government for all chemical products it clearly states there is no known health dangers from Bakelite and they've had the past 100 years to confirm this.

From the MSDS sheets "The plastic resin is not believed or known to be hazardous. When fully ???????cured??????? or reacted, the plastic resin is insoluble, infusible and binds the well-dispersed, embedded filling materials"

Again, if its a special product used for industrial applications it may have had asbestos added to the mix, but that's an expensive product you wouldn't find in the normal home environment and since asbestos is banned in most markets its unlikely it will ever be a threat.

Alexis says:

I think that the author should have added into the article what positive impacts it has instead of only listing the negatives.

Truth says:

Teresa- You should see a doctor. Don't self-diagnose...especially when you're so susceptible to confirmation bias. It could be something serious, and you're wasting your time throwing away plastic instead of using that time to seek life-saving treatment.

Whiffing formaldehyde fumes doesn't cause instant cancer. The risk with formaldehyde comes from long-term exposure in enclosed environments with poor air circulation. The people most at risk (just like with asbestos) were those who manufactured it.

Formaldehyde is commonly kept as a liquid dissolved in water, and is a precursor to PF resins such as Bakelite. Bakelite is NOT a form of frozen formaldehyde. The process of creating Bakelite resin is irreversible: it can't be reverted to its original components! The resin is known for behind highly water resistant, and has a flash-point much, MUCH higher than the temperature of boiling water, not to mention the human body. No study that I could find revealed that Bakelite outgasses formaldehyde. Probably because it doesn't contain any!

However I do know certain types of PF resins that outgas other compounds that aren't formaldehyde. (As measured in a vacuum test chamber, so that vapor pressure doesn't have to overcome atmospheric pressure--not anthropomorphized jewelry that aggressively leaps into the nostrils of its wearer and blasts a jet of mystery toxins.) I won't mention what those compounds are. Obviously people hand-waving about the dangers of Bakelite should know this. Huh. Funny how that information doesn't appear on this page.

Anyway, long story short: if you're having mysetrious health problems, see at least two board-certified doctors and a perhaps a specialist. We should all learn from the lesson of Steve Jobs the dangers of believing witch doctors.

Phil says:

I bought a lot of pots and pans from Ikea, all made in China with Bakelite handles.The problem starts when the handles get hot eg from boiling the pot dry or the flame flickering over to the handles. The smell is aggressive and penetrates and remains in the house for at least two hours even with all the windows and doors open. Are sure that the fumes are not toxic?
Thanks Phil
PS I think to be sure I will just get rid of them as something does not match.

Dave L Phipps says:

My Dad worked for Synthane Corporation and retired from there years ago as did his brother. They made all kinds of bakelite out of different materials. Paper asbestos etc. My Dad worked in the saw dept and the press room. He sawed bakelite into various sizes and shaped with a band saw for years and lived to be 94 years old and did not pass from any bakelite exposure rather dimentia. His brother who just had his 90th Birthday who retired from Synthane also is in better shape then most people his age and is very active with gardening etc on his little farm in the south now. He's gets his yearly health check ups and the only thing wrong with him is he needed hearing aids. Quite a few of their friends who worked with them at Synthane are still alive. So I don't know where the dangerous part is about bakelite unless you grind it up and eat it.

David Weisenthal says:

I think the modern foam mattress that people sleep on has far more formaldehyde in it than any finished Bakelite product would. That's true of many foam product. Also, grinding anything into fine powder is terrible for your lungs. Wood dust, Diatomaceous earth, cement dust, and a lot of sand is full of super fine silica dust. This article doesn't offer any real evidence for the dangers of Bakelite-seems silly to me.

Brian Bechtel says:

Interesting article. I too was researching Bakelite and ended finding my way here.

I hadn't realized that it was used in so many things.

An aspect that some may not know is that in the gun world, Russians made AK magazines out of Bakelite. And people in the AK world of today but them when they can.

An enthusiast who also makes jewelry started making beautiful rings out of Bakelite from old magazines. Not sure how he makes them or if he seals them with some other resin. Considering buying one is what led to my search.

My original thinking was in a solid form it shouldn't pose a threat.

hobby16 says:

Chiming in as a chemical engineer, there are persistent rumors that bakelite was forbidden because of its supposed toxicity, it's false. Bakelite has been mostly ruled out because of recycling regulations. It is a tridimensionnal polymer, rendering it impossible to recycle by remelting or by energy generating burning, contrary to other long-chain plastics like PE, PS, PVC... Since manufacturers are compelled by law to include some (big) percentage of recyclable materials, it renders the use of bakelite mostly impossible.

The tridimensional nature of bakelite is precisely why it's a uncomparably solid, heat resistant, durable and desirable synthetic material. Bakelite ages very well contrary to modern plastics, that's why items with bakelite are so valued by buyers and collectors.

It is made from oil derivatives and is no more costly to produce than any other synthetic polymers, it only cost more for end users because of small volumes. As to odor, there may be smelly bakelite like there may be smelly any other plastics, it has nothing to do with the nature of the material and everything to do with the sloppy fabrication process and the lack of quality control. Smelly bakelite is more the exception than the rule but anyway, it has have never been a public health concern (want something which smells more, try wood!). The fear mongering around bakelite is unfair and unjustified. If anything, life expectancy has greatly increased during the golden age of bakelite (and show no sign of slowing down decades after), so any accusation against bakelite is contradicted by massive evidence.

Wayne says:

Bakelite aside, the dangers of prolonged exposure to plastics and other such synthetic materials and chemicals have been proven over and over. In the present world, we are all surrounded by the stuff - eating and breathing it. People are inexplicably dropping all around us like flies due to cancer and we are still wondering why. Wake up people!!

Dave says:

As a long time collector of Bakelite telephones I have thoroughly researched the British GPO archives from the 1920's all the way through to the 1960's and asbestos was never used as a filler for old Bakelite telephones in the UK. In Britain they used "wood filler" as the "filler" for Bakelite, only because after extensive testing they believed "wood filler" produced far more resilient Bakelite telephone cases. So thankfully the risks of owning or working with old Bakelite phones is non existent.

Emily says:

I am doing a chemistry project on bakelite and one of my focuses are better alternatives of bakelite. The exact question is "do safer, greener, more cost effective alternatives exist?" I have found some like tufnol and Corian. Even though they may be similar to bakelite, i don't believe they are safer nor greener or more cost effective which is what I am searching for. Any help would be appreciated!


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