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Plastic, Your Microwave, and Cancer

These are some of the emails circulating recently reporting the danger of heating plastic containers:

Cancer Update from John Hopkins:
     No plastic containers in microwave.
     No water bottles in freezer.
     No plastic wrap in microwave.

Don't Use Plastic for Heating Foods in a Microwave Oven Because of Exposure to Dioxins

Heated Bottles of Water Are Dangerous and Caused Sheryl Crow's Cancer

We decided to do some digging, looking to the FDA, US Dept. of Health, TruthorFiction.com, and the John Hopkins University itself. Here's what we found:

From John Hopkins University

Rumors and e-mail warnings have sent up red flags about using plastic bottles. But are they true?

Claim: A University of Idaho student's master's thesis found that reused plastic water bottles leach chemicals.

Reality: Not true, says the FDA. The student's tests were not subjected to peer or FDA review. The FDA has classified polyethylene terephthalate (PET) the material used in most disposable water bottles as meeting federal standards for food-contact materials.

Claim: The plasticiser DEHA is a human carcinogen that can leach from the plastic bottles into the water, possibly causing cancer.

Reality: First, the plasticizer used in PET is diethlhexyladipate, not diethylhydroxylamine (DEHA). The American Cancer Society states, "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says DEHA 'cannot reasonably be anticipated to cause cancer ... or other serious or irreversible chronic health effects."

Claim: Freezing water releases dioxins in plastic bottles.

Reality: Plastics contain no dioxins, says Rolf Halden, assistant professor in the Department of Environment Health Sciences and the Center for Water and Health at Johns Hopkins. "Freezing actually works against the release of chemicals," he adds. "Chemicals do not diffuse as readily in cold temperatures, which would limit chemical release if there were dioxins in plastic, and we don't think there are."

From the FDA

The claim that plastic food wraps and containers can release dioxins in the microwave oven is misleading. First, the vast majority of plastics used in food wraps and packaging containers do not contain the chemical constituents that can form dioxins. Second, dioxins are a family of compounds that are produced by combustion at high temperatures. They can only be formed during combustion at temperatures typically above 700 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, even if all of the constituents were present, you also would need to have a very hot fire in your microwave oven, in which case you probably wouldn’t eat the food anyway.

“With regard to dioxins, we have seen no evidence that plastic containers or films contain dioxins and know of no reason why they would.

When should you use a plastic product in the microwave? A variety of today’s plastic wraps, packages and containers are specially designed to withstand microwave temperatures. To make sure yours is one of them, check the item or its packaging label. Only use a product in the microwave if the manufacturer indicates that it is okay to do so and be sure to follow any specific instructions provided. If neither the item nor the package is marked, use a different container.

Plastics and the Microwave

Michelle Meadows / The USDA

Stories about the dangers of chemicals leaching from plastic into microwaved food have circulated on the Internet for years. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration continues to receive inquiries from concerned consumers.

Consumers can be confident as they heat holiday meals or leftovers in the microwave that the FDA carefully reviews the substances used to make plastics designed for food use. These include microwave-safe plastic coverings that keep food from splattering and microwave-safe containers that hold frozen dinners. Even microwavable popcorn bags, which look like paper, actually contain a metalized plastic film that allows them to reach high temperatures so the corn can fully pop.

Under the food additive provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, new substances used to make plastics for food use are classified as "food contact substances." They must be found safe for their intended use before they can be marketed.

"It's true that substances used to make plastics can leach into food," says Edward Machuga, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "But as part of the approval process, the FDA considers the amount of a substance expected to migrate into food and the toxicological concerns about the particular chemical." The agency has assessed migration levels of substances added to regulated plastics and has found the levels to be well within the margin of safety based on information available to the agency. The FDA will revisit its safety evaluation if new scientific information raises concerns.

One chemical called diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA) has received a lot of media attention. DEHA is a plasticizer, a substance added to some plastics to make them flexible. DEHA exposure may occur when eating certain foods wrapped in plastics, especially fatty foods such as meat and cheese. But the levels are very low. The levels of the plasticizer that might be consumed as a result of plastic film use are well below the levels showing no toxic effect in animal studies.

Other claims have asserted that plastics contain dioxins, a group of contaminants labeled as a "likely human carcinogen" by the Environmental Protection Agency. "The FDA has seen no evidence that plastic containers or films contain dioxins and knows of no reason why they would," Machuga says.

Machuga says that consumers should be sure to use any plastics for their intended purpose and in accordance with directions. If you don't find instructions for microwave use, you should use a different plate or container that you know is microwave-safe. Such containers are made to withstand high temperatures.

For example, carryout containers from restaurants and margarine tubs should not be used in the microwave, according to the American Plastics Council. Inappropriate containers may melt or warp, which can increase the likelihood of spills and burns. Also, discard containers that hold prepared microwavable meals after you use them because they are meant for one-time use.

Microwave-safe plastic wrap should be placed loosely over food so that steam can escape, and should not directly touch your food. "Some plastic wraps have labels indicating that there should be a one-inch or greater space between the plastic and the food during microwave heating," Machuga says.

Always read directions, but generally, microwave-safe plastic wraps, wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper, and white microwave-safe paper towels are safe to use. Covering food helps protect against contamination, keeps moisture in, and allows food to cook evenly. Never use plastic storage bags, grocery bags, newspapers, or aluminum foil in the microwave.

Senior Democratic U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, who heads the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said the FDA has "focused myopically on industry-funded research."

Tarantino said nothing was ignored but industry-funded studies finding no harm were important in the conclusions. The panel is expected to present its advice to the FDA next month.

Tarantino, head of the FDA's office of food additive safety, said there is talk of government scientists doing their own BPA safety studies. Such work could take years to conduct, however.

The Rumor:

Don't Use Plastic for Heating Foods in a Microwave Oven Because of Exposure to Dioxins - Fiction! & Unproven!

Heated Bottles of Water Are Dangerous and Caused Sheryl Crow's Cancer -
The first to appear on the Internet was a message that says a Dr. Edward Fujimoto from the Castle Hospital (no location mentioned) appeared on television and said plastic containers should not be used for heating foods in a microwave oven. He said this is especially true if the foods contain fat. The message claims that the combination of fats and plastics will release dioxins into the food and into the cells of the body with a risk of cancer. The doctor recommended using glass, Corning Ware, or ceramic containers instead in order to avoid the dioxin. Prepared foods such as TV dinners should be taken out of plastic containers before heating.

The second version tells the story of a seventh-grade student who decided to do some experiments with microwave radiation on food wrapped in plastic. She is said to have enlisted the help of the National Center for "Toxicological" Research in Arkansas. The student allegedly found that not only are there carcinogens migrating from the plastic into food during microwaving, but other substances as well.
This eRumor also lists an article about Dr. Edward Fujimoto saying that he appeared on a TV station in Huntsville, Alabama.

Another version claims all this was in newsletters from Johns Hopkins University and Walter Reed Army Medical center.

Yet another version says that singer Sheryl Crow, who is suffering from breast cancer, got her cancer from drinking from plastic water bottles left in the sun and that got too hot and, as a result, were contaminated with dioxins.

The Truth:

TruthOrFiction.com has not been able to find any research that supports the fear that food can become contaminated with dioxins either from plastic wrap or plastic in microwave ovens.

It's an understandable concern because dioxins are among the most poisonous chemical group known and steps have been taken by many world governments to reduce the amounts of dioxins in the environment.

Dr. Edward Fujimoto is real and is the Manager of the Wellness and lifestyle Medicine Department at Castle Medical Center in Hawaii. (not Alabama). Part of this eRumor is the result of an interview he did on KHON-TV channel 2 in Hawaii on January 23, 2002.

TruthOrFiction.com contacted Dr. Fujimoto who said the eRumor quoted him fairly accurately. His concern was whether a combination of ingredients, especially plastics and food fats, could result in food being contaminated by dioxins when heated in a microwave. That is his observation and he claims to have research substantiating it.
TruthOrFiction.com has twice asked for him to give us that research but has never received it. He said that he is surprised about how little Americans know about dioxins in everyday life because in Japan, the majority of the population knows about them and the country has enacted regulations to protect its people. He explained that in his view, heating food in a plastic container will produce the release of dioxins and fat will absorb them. The amount of migration of dioxins to fat, he said, will be a function of the heat in the microwave, the type of plastic, the length of time of exposure, and the amount of fat that is in contact. Dr. Fujimoto pointed out that the amounts of dioxins in any given piece of plastic or food that is microwaved in plastic is very small, but that the problem is that dioxins get into the human body and accumulate. He sad that in Japan, there has been a complete change in the way foods are packaged so that plastic is avoided. They use more glass, for example.

In early 2004, a corrupted version of the eRumor started circulating that made it appear as though Dr. Fujimoto was also concerned about putting water in plastic bottles and freezing it, but he never addressed that. This version of the eRumor also made it sound as though the plastic itself was the problem, not the plastic in combination with food and heat. It says, for example, that the heat causes dioxin (sic) to "drip from the plastic" into the food but none of the researchers has claimed that.

A variation of the bottled water version said that was how singer Sheryl Crow got cancer, by drinking bottled water and that she appeared on the Ellen show or the Oprah show to tell the story. Crow has been treated for breast cancer but she's never blamed it on bottled water.

Another version of eRumor about the seventh-grader has been a little more difficult to detail. We've confirmed that there is a Dr. Jon Wilkes at the National Center for Toxilogical Research who, along with a Claire V. Nelson, published a paper at a professional event in Orlando, Florida in 1998 and it was on the subject of food contamination from plastic wrap. We've not found the actual study, however, and have never received a response from Dr. Wilkes. The eRumor about Jon Wilkes and Claire Nelson appears to have come from the Options Newsletter published by People Against Cancer at www.peopleagainstcancer.com.

The folks who make Saran Wrap have responded to the eRumor. A statement by the SC Johnson company says the "plasticizer" in Saran Wrap is derivative of naturally occurring citric acid found in citrus fruits and is 100% dioxin free. The statement further adds that dioxins can only be formed with chlorine is combined with the kinds of high temperatures associated with waste incinerators, temperatures like 1,500 degrees F. Even the most powerful microwaves are not capable of those temperatures, according to the company.
SC Johnson says none of its products contains dioxins.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, dioxins are both natural and man-made. The man-made dioxins are released into the air from sources like waste incineration, from burning fuels (like wood, coal or oil), and certain types of chemical processing. Almost every person has been exposed to low levels of dioxins and the EPA says there is research that suggests that high levels of dioxins may be correlated with various health problems, although some of that is extrapolated from studies of animals, not humans.

The only reference we could find about dioxins and microwaves was from an FDA publication that was concerned about dioxins resulting from the bleached manufacture of paper goods including milk cartons and some paper containers for microwave dinners. That was not about plastics and high temperatures, however, and the levels of dioxins were described as safe.

The Food and Safety Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published guidelines for safe cooking in microwave ovens and warns against using materials that are not regarded as microwave safe. CLICK HERE for those guidelines. You'll note that one of the guidelines is to avoid letting plastic wraps touch food. That is another issue, however, and not related to dioxins or high heat in microwaves.

The Food and Drug Administration has also issued a statement about plastics and microwaves.vCLICK HERE for that document.

The American Plastics Council has also posted a page on the subject.
CLICK HERE for their take on the dioxin question.

Somewhere along the way someone decided to add that all this information had appeared in newsletters from Johns Hopkins University and Walter Reed Army Medical center but neither has promoted the dioxin story.

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