Plastics in the Microwave

Microwave ovens are a part of our daily life like blow dryers or TVs. Yet it seems that--unlike the latter two--microwave technology, being a mystery to most people, still scares the bejeepers out of us. Which makes for a multitude of urban legends and email hoaxes circulating the Internet.

In February 2002, a chain email began to appear in people's inboxes, asserting that plastic wraps and plastic containers used in a microwave oven will release cancer-causing dioxins into the heated food. The scare mail, although three years old, is still making the rounds today. Is there really any truth to its claims?

As it is often the case, there is more than one answer to this question, and even more different opinions. This time, it's the plastics industry and government health agencies versus environmentalists and consumer groups... now, whom do you believe? Let's look at some facts.

Food safety experts have emphasized that certain precautions are necessary when putting plastics in the microwave: Food packaging and plastic containers need to be labeled "microwave-safe", and wraps should never be allowed to touch the food.

The Food and Drug Administration even admitted that chemicals may indeed leak from the plastics into your TV dinner--question is whether that presents a health hazard for humans. The much-feared, cancer-causing dioxins have shown to be released only through burning chlorine-containing plastics at extremely high temperatures (1,500 degrees F) as happens in waste incineration; through burning fossil fuels; and certain types of chemical processing. In fact, you're more likely to contaminate your food with dioxins by covering it with a bleached paper towel than by covering it with plastic wrap.

There is no evidence, says the FDA, that chlorine-containing plastics heated in a microwave would develop dioxins. Besides, some modern plastics, such as Saran Wrap, have been reformulated by their makers so they don't contain PVC or any other chlorinated substances anymore.

One typical chain email alerting the general public about the "dioxin problem" mentions a Dr. Edward Fujimoto who allegedly stated on TV that the combination of plastic wrap and fatty foods heated in a microwave oven can contaminate the food with dioxins. Dr. Fujimoto is indeed a real person and the manager of the Wellness and Lifestyle Medicine Department at Castle Medical Center in Kailua, Hawaii. He is a PhD, not a medical doctor, though. Two food safety specialists from Cornell University, Professor Joe Hotchkiss and Donna L. Scott, who tried to find a published study or expert article (on any topic) by Dr. Fujimoto, came up empty-handed.

Chlorine is not the only culprit, however. Another controversy has revolved around di(-2ethylhexyl)adipate (DEHA), a compound used to make plastics more malleable. Although S.C. Johnson & Son took DEHA out of their Saran Wrap as well, it can still be a component of other plastic wraps, frozen-food containers, etc.

The chain email recounts the tale of Claire Nelson, a recipient of several student science awards, who at the age of 12 had the idea of examining the leakage of chemicals from plastic wrap into microwaved food. Three years later, using the facilities at the National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, AK, she immersed four different food wraps in virgin olive oil and heated them in the microwave. As a result, she found that DEHA as well as xenoestrogens (hormones that are believed to contribute to low sperm count in men and *** cancer in women) migrated into the olive oil, the former at 200 to 500 parts per million. "The FDA standard," says the email, "is 0.05 parts per billion."

While Claire Nelson really exists and conducted the aforementioned experiment, the claims of the email are not quite accurate. First of all, the plastic wrap touched the food--something all food safety experts warn against--and second, it is not at all proven that DEHA causes any harm to humans when ingested. Studies have shown contradictory results: Some research in the late 1990s seemed to show a connection between DEHA and cancer, later studies did not. Current scientific consensus is that the amounts of DEHA that can potentially leak into our food are too insignificant to cause any harm. For that reason, the EPA took DEHA off its list of toxic chemicals... which didn't do much to calm down consumer advocate groups.

The same goes for xenoestrogens--there is no conclusive proof that they harm anyone, but if you google the word, you'll find dozens of alarming reports. It's a matter of inclination, we thinks.

So, is it safe? It sure seems that way, but that's just the scientific status quo, of course, and we know how quickly that can change. Picky consumers may consider whether they want chemical drippings of any kind, cancer-causing or not, in their dinner. When in doubt, just use glassware or ceramics, and for a detailed list of instructions on how to safely use your microwave oven, check the USDA's guidelines.

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Posted 07-12-2005 2:28 PM by Doug Casey