Are you Eating Plastic?


The Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) cautions consumers from consuming food cooked using plastic ladles and spoons or hot food stored in plastic containers. From a public health perspective, heated plastic is an unnecessary source of exposure to harmful elements and stringent measures must be taken to prevent it.

The use of plastics has increased exponentially. Global plastics production in 2012 rose to 288 million tonnes – a 2.8% increase compared to 2011.

Plastics are in almost everything we use and inevitably is being ingested subconsciously by many. We certainly wouldn’t eat plastics knowingly but when you eat or drink things stored in plastic, especially hot food and liquid, plastics may be incorporated into us.

CAP’s survey and observation reveals that many consumers are now steaming or boiling food in wrapped plastic sheets. Traditional kuih such as pre-packed nasi himpit are boiled or heated with the plastic wrappings. These foods were traditionally wrapped in banana, lotus, bamboo, pandan, palas leaves prior to steaming, boiling, baking.

We have also come across people using plastic sheets to line idlis (South Indian food) when steaming. It is also common to see consumers “tapau” or pack hot drinks in polythene bags. Plastic containers (especially Styrofoam) are also the choice for take aways, even when packing hot food.

Storing food and water in plastic containers may be convenient but is it entirely safe? Environmental scientists warn that tiny amounts of synthetic chemicals which are used in the processing, packaging and storing of the food we eat can leach, interact and cause long-term damage to our health.

Concerns have been raised in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, part of the British Medical Journal group. While these minute quantities in themselves do no harm, no one knows how safe we are from a lifetime's exposure to these chemicals through eating food previously wrapped, or stored or cooked in or with plastics.

A study published in early 2008 in Toxicology Letters suggested that hot liquids and foods exacerbate leaching in BPA-containing plastics. When researchers poured boiling water into polycarbonate drinking bottles, it caused up to 55 times more Bisphenol A (BPA) to seep out than room-temperature water had.

Phthalates, the chemicals that make a Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) container flexible, can migrate out of the plastic when it's heated. Phthalates can leach into food, resulting in hormone imbalances and birth defects.

Some of the chemicals in plastics that could cause concern are regulated and some plastics are said to be of food grade quality. However, we are concerned that consumers who eat packaged or processed foods are likely to be chronically exposed to low levels of these substances throughout their lives.

The use and throw culture of plastics has created a necessity for its recycling. Though organised sectors exist, the unorganised recycling industry also flourishes. It is here that there is a possibility of contamination of different grades of plastics. If end-use products produced from such plastics are in the form of lunch boxes and water bottles, especially for children, they are further going to have an impact on health. We also overlook the leaching of chemical contaminants from land fillings into the ground water by mismanagement of plastic wastes.

Plastic is made by heating components of crude oil or natural gas, combining many chemicals in a process called polymerization. In addition to the basic polymers, plastics also contain additional chemical components called additives, which are added in small amounts to alter the properties in the polymers in the desired way and/or simplify their processing.

The plastics industry tells us that the polymerization process binds the chemicals together. However this process is never 100% perfect and some of the chemicals may migrate out or leach from the plastic product and into whatever contacts it – our food, our water, etc.

Many of the chemicals in plastic can disrupt the normal functioning of the endocrine system of most animals, including humans. The effects of these endocrine disruptors can be devastating and permanent. Embryos and the very young are the most vulnerable to this attack on the endocrine system because of their developing bodies.

An assessment of the state of the science of endocrine disruptors prepared by a group of experts for the United Nations Environment Programme and World Health Organization in 2012 states that the diverse systems affected by Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) likely include all hormonal systems and range from those controlling the development and function of reproductive organs to the tissues and organs regulating metabolism and satiety. Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility or reduced fertility, learning and memory difficulties, adult-onset diabetes or cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases.

At times, people set to flame mixed garbage. Burning waste containing plastic and rubber can also release toxic chemicals and gases such as dioxins in the environment.

The plastic industries' response to the warnings of environmentalists is that the toxic chemicals that may migrate from all plastics happens at extremely low levels that cause no harm. We recognize that there is lack of research to make definitive statements on the risks of plastic toxicity, but there is enough to invoke the precautionary principle.

CAP calls for the Precautionary Principle to be applied. If there is any doubt about the safety or health effects of a chemical, it should be prohibited until it can be proven benign. Erring on the side of risk inevitably exposes the public to major health hazards. Protecting human health and the environment from the hazards of plastic, requires precaution.

CAP urges consumers to avoid placing hot food and drinks in plastics or cooking food with plastic ladles and storing hot food in plastic containers/sheets/liners/bags. There are many options available such as glass, ceramic, stainless steel to store or heat food; and traditional wrapping and liners for cooking such as leaves and cotton/linen cloth.

Stay Safe, Avoid Plastic.

Press Conference, 11 November 2014