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Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere
Plastic food containers are everywhere and are here to stay (at least until a better material comes along, that is). Much of the food and drink that we consume, including microwaveable dinners, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, margarine, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, water, juices and soda pop, just to name a few, are sold in plastic containers. But how safe are these containers, anyway? The following sections provide a discussion of the health risks they can pose and offer suggestions for minimizing the risks that lurk in our grocery stores, refrigerators and cupboards.
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The Health Risks Posed By Plastic
The good news is that most plastics are safe when used properly. For example, most plastic bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is a lightweight plastic that the Food and Drug Administration has deemed to be perfectly safe and free of risk when used as intended. (You can be sure you have a PET bottle in your hands if you see the number "1" within the recycling triangle that adorns most food containers.)
Unfortunately, however, some plastic bottles contain a compound known as bisphenol A (BPA), which some believe may increase the risk of diabetes, liver problems, heart disease and other problems. Food and drink container products that are most likely to contain BPA are baby bottles, plastic cutlery, microwaveable dishware, plastic bottle caps, and even the very thin, inner liners of some cans.
It is important to note that the risk posed by BPA remains controversial as some do not believe that is poses significant risk. For example, the FDA has stated that BPA amounts commonly found in food and drink containers are typically too low to pose any serious threat. Other groups, however, feel otherwise. Most notably, the National Toxicology Program (NTP), which is overseen by the National Institutes of Health, has tested human BPA-containing food containers on animals and found that some animals were adversely affected by BPA. While these adverse effects were not severe, they were substantial enough for the NTP to conclude that containers that have BPA do pose "some threat" to fetuses, infants and small children. On the other hand, the NTP has concluded that containers that have BPA pose "minimal threat" to adults and older children.
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What You Should Do to Minimize the Risk of Harm from Plastic Food Containers
Although plastic food containers are generally safe, they must be used properly for safety to follow. But what does "properly" mean? Follow these tips to ensure that you and your loved ones use plastic containers in a manner that minimizes health risk:
- Wash food containers gently by hand. Dishwashing machines cause scratching, which can release potentially harmful chemicals, such as BPA, for example.
- Read the packaging that accompanies the microwaveable containers that you purchase. If the packing indicates that the container is meant only for single use, then microwave the container only once. Do not try to squeeze extra life out of a product that is meant for single use.
- Get in the habit of transferring certain food products, such as microwaveable dinners, for example, to glass containers before microwaving.
- Breastfeed baby. If that is not an option, select powdered formula over canned.
- Search for BPA-free baby bottles and make sure baby feeds from only them. (Tip: When you locate BPA-free bottles, stock up. You do not want to be later tempted to purchase a BPA-containing bottle when your at a store that sells only BPA-containing bottles.)
- Cut down on your intake of canned food and favor fresh food as much as possible instead.
- When reusing a plastic container (such as when refilling a water bottle, for example), make sure that you wash it out with plenty of soap and hot water in between each use. Potentially harmful bacteria and other microbes can multiply quickly in a container that has food or liquid residue, even water residue. Soap and hot water kill and rinse away these bugs, ensuring that your next bite or sip will be a safe one.
We face certain risk of all kinds, including that posed by the plastic containers in which we store and consume our food and drink. However, this does not mean that we should avoid these containers at all costs. With just a little bit of precaution, we can minimize the plastic food packaging health risk that we potentially face.
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D. Biello, Plastic (Not) Fantastic: Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical, Scientific American, 2008: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=plastic-not-fantastic-with-bisphenol-a
The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, Microwaving food in plastic: Dangerous or not?: http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update0706a.shtml
UAB Medicine, Food Safety (Containers): http://www.health.uab.edu/61158/
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Guidance for Industry: Use of Recycled Plastics in Food Packaging: Chemistry Considerations: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodIngredientsandPackaging/ucm120762.htm