A senior internal medicine expert from Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) is advising residents to take precautions when using plastic containers to store or heat food.
HMC’s Chairman of Internal Medicine, Professor Abdul-Badi Abou-Samra, says that storing or heating food or drinks in containers made from plastic can increase the amount of chemicals transferred to the food, something he says can have negative health effects. Instead, the expert suggests opting for glass (such as Pyrex) or metal containers, adding that it is wise to avoid heating or microwaving food in plastic packaging even if the label indicates a container is microwave-safe.
Professor Abou-Samra acknowledges that it can be difficult to avoid using plastic food packaging but says it is important to be cautious. “Today most food and drink is packaged in containers made from plastics. Soft drink and bottled water containers are usually made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), while yoghurt and margarine containers are usually made from polypropylene (PP). Food manufacturers generally do not use packaging or wrapping made from potentially harmful plastics like polycarbonate or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), however, there are products in the supermarkets that do,” he highlighted.
“You can often identify the type of chemicals used in the manufacturing of a plastic from the product’s identification code. Packaging with codes 1 (PET), 2 (high density polyethylene - HDPE), 4 (low density polyethylene - LDPE), 5 (PP) and 6 (PS) are generally nontoxic. Whenever possible avoid packaging with the codes 3 (PVC) or 7 (a catch-all for any other plastics that include polycarbonate),” cautions Professor Abou-Samra.
Plastic identification codes are generally stamped or printed on the bottom of packaging and surrounded by the internationally used recycling symbol, which consists of arrows that form a rounded triangle.
Professor Abou-Samra says ingesting harmful chemicals from plastic can negatively impact one’s health. “When ingested, these chemicals can disrupt the body’s endocrine (or hormone) system and can cause conditions such as asthma, cancer, birth defects, immune system suppression, and developmental and reproductive problems,” Professor Abou-Samra said.
He explained further that BPA and some phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can interfere with the body's natural hormones and thereby cause a variety of health problems. “Infants and the very young are most vulnerable to exposure because of their lower body weight and because their growth and development are strongly influenced by hormones; the negative effects on health can be lifelong. These effects have been seen clearly and consistently in experiments with animals and when people or wildlife have been accidentally exposed to high levels of endocrine disruptors.”
“While these compounds are undoubtedly hazardous at high levels of exposure, scientific opinion is divided over the risk from the much lower levels that we are exposed to every day in our food. There is, however, growing scientific evidence that even at lower levels of exposure, phthalates and BPA may cause problems such as infertility, obesity, breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease and diabetes,” he noted.
To limit exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, Professor Abou-Samra recommends eating more fresh foods and reducing consumption of processed or fast foods. “Choosing fresh foods as part of a healthier diet will not only help you avoid harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing process of plastic containers, but it will also help in reducing the large amounts of sodium, fat and other unhealthy ingredients contained in processed or fast foods,” he says.
The US-based Food and Drug Administration provides a number of useful tips to help avoid exposure to potentially harmful chemicals found in plastic products, including:
- Avoid buying meat, fruit or vegetables wrapped in PVC cling wrap. While most cling wrap sold for domestic use is made from low density polyethylene (number 4), supermarkets and many independent butchers and fruit and vegetable shops are still wrapping meat and fresh vegetables in cling wrap made from PVC.
Avoid using reusable plastic bottles with number 3 (or PVC), and number 7 (or PC). Instead look for product labels that read BPA-free. Keep in mind that heating and washing polycarbonate bottles can increase the amount of BPA that leaches out.
Consider cutting down on your consumption of canned foods, as the tin lining can leach BPA directly into food.
Don’t reuse plastics with the number 1 (used in water and soft drink bottles) and throw away worn or scratched plastic containers. Hand-wash plastic containers instead of using a dishwasher in order to reduce wear and tear.
Professor Abou-Samra also cautions against the use of non-stick cookware. He says these pots and pans can release toxic chemicals, particularly when cooking at very high temperatures.
“When using non-stick cookware, use the lowest temperature possible to safely cook the food. Also, run the exhaust fan over the stove when cooking on the stovetop. Where possible, opt for cookware made from materials such as cast iron,” he advises.
Anyone having health issues suspected of plastic chemical contamination should seek urgent professional medical advice.