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Dhaka Tribune

How safe are plastic takeout boxes?

The toxins leached from the plastics have been linked to a number of health issues including infertility and development

Update : 04 Oct 2021, 09:28 PM

Food delivery services are becoming increasingly popular in the country and so is the use of plastic containers to carry the food, which raises the question: how safe are those takeout boxes? According to experts, not only are those plastic boxes unsafe for carrying piping hot food, but their effects on our health are far more devastating than meets the eye.

Researchers say that eating hot meals off plastic containers can cause many health hazards, such as cancer. Not only that, the toxins that leach off those containers while carrying hot food also cause hormone disruptions, infertility, adversely affect human development and are linked to diabetes and obesity.

An article in Harvard Health Publishing by Harvard Medical School notes that leaching can occur even faster and to a greater degree when plastic is exposed to heat, meaning we might be getting an even higher dose of potentially harmful chemicals simply by microwaving our leftovers in a plastic container.

What’s in plastic?

Plastic as food container material or wrappings is especially dangerous because of the harmful chemicals that leach out of it into the food when heated. According to experts, thousands of compounds are found in plastic products across the food chain but very little is known about them.

One of the dangerous compounds found in plastic containers and wrappers are phthalates, which make plastics more durable and flexible. A study carried out by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked the compound to reproductive dysfunction in animal studies and some researchers have even suggested that it causes decreased fertility, neurodevelopmental issues and asthma in humans.

Another harmful chemical that can leach into food when heated is Bisphenol-A, more popularly known as BPA.

There is mounting evidence that bisphenol causes sterility and breast cancer, Brac University Microbiology Department Professor Mahboob Hossain told Dhaka Tribune.

“This chemical messes with the hormones in the body and causes sterility and in many cases breast cancer,” he said. 

Now that BPA is subject to scrutiny as a result of studies linking it to neonatal and infant brain and reproductive harm, manufacturers have resorted to the use of bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol (BPF), in order to market products as “BPA-free.”

However, researchers agree that the replacements aren’t any better. Studies at the University of Texas and Washington State University have found that even at a dose of one part per trillion, BPS could disrupt cell functioning, while a 2019 study by New York University linked childhood obesity with BPS and BPF.

How bad are the toxins?

A study, titled “Effects of bisphenol compounds on the growth and epithelial mesenchymal transition of MCF-7 CV human breast cancer cells”, published in the Journal of Biomedical Research, found that Bisphenol-A (BPA) is considered as an endocrine disrupting chemical and can threaten health by generating reproductive and developmental disorders and cancer development.

Hormones function like messengers and are integral to the body’s regulatory functions. They reach designated organs and make the system work together. It has been found that BPA disrupts hormones in many ways, including by acting as an estrogen imitator, blocking other sex hormones, and disrupting the thyroid hormone system. 

Dr Mohammad Rafiqul Islam, President of the Bangladesh Society of Safe Food, told Dhaka Tribune that the health problems caused by eating hot foods off plastic products had been backed by much scientific research over the years.

However, people in Bangladesh were heavily dependent on plastic packaging of foods, even when it was piping hot, he said.

“Leftover food at the restaurants that customers take home with them in plastic containers might not be a risk as the food is not usually warm,” he said, adding that when food was ordered online, the restaurants had to deliver it piping hot.

What’s the solution?

Brac Professor Mahboob Hossain says that restaurants opted for plastic as it was easily available and cheap.

However, aluminum foil containers are not that expensive and it is a good alternative to plastic containers, at least for delivering hot food, he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Mohammad Rafiqul Islam is of the view that the best solution to this problem is to create public awareness about the health hazards that come with serving hot food through plastic products. 

“People in the urban areas have been using plastic containers, wrappers and bags for hot food for years,” he said.

He added that they needed to be educated about the health concerns related to having hot food off plastic products.

Saying that microwaving food in plastic container posed health hazards, Dr Islam added that educating restaurant owners and staff about the health risk they were putting their customers into would be a good start. 

Despite the severe effects of plastic food containers, the Bangladesh Food Safety Authority guideline does not specifically mention anything about plastic packaging but cautions against using products that contain harmful chemicals.  

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