Plastics in helmets are not likely to harm you
Summary: There is growing evidence that ingredients in some plastics may be harmful. Helmets are largely made of
plastics, but the good news is that most of the plastics used are probably safe. There may be concerns about the plastic
in polycarbonate shells, but they are not in contact with your skin while you ride. We think that the benefits of helmet
protection far outweigh any risk from the materials. We have not dumped our own polycarbonate-shell helmets yet, but our
polycarbonate water bottles are being reused for other things.
Some of our most-used plastics have ingredients that may be harmful. Plastics are widely recognized as a major pollutant
of the global environment. The witch hunt is on. Here is what we understand so far.
Most helmets have a plastic shell, EPS foam liner, nylon or polyethylene straps and a plastic buckle. The
good news is that the EPS foam that makes up the thick inside layer is apparently inert and has not been identified as a
Helmet shells may be made of the type of plastic now suspected of leaching out the chemical BPA. High-end helmet shells
are often made from polycarbonate (GE's Lexan for example). It has been associated with high quality helmets for more
than 20 years, particularly those that are inmolded
. Polycarbonate is used for its high strength
and because it does not melt in the hot mold. If you paid more than $40 for your helmet and it has big big vents, it
probably has a polycarbonate shell. Often the manufacturer's label identifies the plastic in the shell. Even if your
helmet does have a polycarbonate shell, the amount of exposure to BPA would have to be miniscule compared to the large
amounts of polycarbonate in your eyeglasses, your car, your computer equipment, your watch, your tv set, your CD's, your
hearing aids, your pens, your plastic utensils and your other sports equipment. If polycarbonate is really a problem, the
cleanup will be massive, and you will hear a lot more about it soon.
There are other shell materials, some of them not yet found to be sources of unsafe chemicals. Many of the cheaper
helmets found in discount stores are made with PET shells, the same material found in milk jugs, fruit juice containers
and more. Helmets made with PET shells will typically have smaller vents, because the lower strength shell material does
not permit opening up larger vents and still maintaining the required level of impact protection. Hard shell helmets may
have ABS plastic or fiberglass shells. We don't think those have been implicated as possible sources of problems.
Bear in mind that the shell does not have much contact with your skin under normal conditions. You are probably still
using CD's and handling them by the edges although they are known sources of BPA.
Straps and Inside Materials
It seems to us that the most important plastic in your helmet is the part that is in
contact with your sweating skin while you ride. If chemicals were going to leach out and be absorbed, they would come
from the layer you contact for hours with sweat as the leaching agent. That includes the strap, buckle, interior fit
system and pads.
The bad news is that we don't have a good fix on possible problems with the interior materials yet, and we have no advice
for you. The nylon or polyethylene in most straps has not yet been implicated as a problem, and at least one large
manufacturer has tested all of their and found them free of pthalates. The leading buckle manufacturer has told us that
their buckles are free of BPA and pthalates, a chemical Europe has banned for most uses, but continues to approve for
sports equipment. Buckles have a much lower contact area than the strap in any event, and don't absorb sweat. We don't
know what materials are used in the fit ring of One-Size-Fits-All helmets, or in rear stabilizers.
A conference at the Consumer Product Safety Commission in May of 2008 revealed that Wal-Mart and Toys'R'Us are ahead of
this curve and already policing for lead, phthalates, bisphenol A, and many other potential problems. At that conference
we learned that the largest US helmet manufacturer, Bell, has some of the same sophisticated lab test equipment used by
CPSC to analyze products in their lab, and is testing every component of every helmet model to make sure they have no
problems. Since the US Government has no standards for BPA or pthalates, the fact that Bell sells to Wal-Mart is probably
the best indication that their products are safe, an ironic situation.
We think that today's helmets are safe to wear. The immediate protection of a helmet would be well
worth the possibility of a small longer-term risk from chemicals, if in fact there was a risk. We ride every day in the
same helmets we were using before the plastics scare began. Most of ours have polycarbonate shells. But all of our
polycarbonate water bottles are history. We are favoring plastics with recycling codes 1, 2 or 4, including the
Specialized brand of Low Density PolyEthylene (LDPE) water bottles made with plastics approved as food grade by the Food
and Drug Administration.
We would like to know a lot more about this subject, and are updating this page as soon as we learn more. In the
meantime, you are being exposed to the suspect chemicals in everyday life, and your helmet plastics are insignificant
compared to what you encounter in your home, office, stores, restaurants, gyms, schools, cars and transit vehicles.