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Are those plastic bowls safe?

July 16, 2008

You know, I get nervous whenever I eat out at the hawkers, especially when I order something soup-based like har mien or yee mien. When the boiling hot soup reaches my table in a plastic bowl, I start to worry if any rogue chemical got released into the soup. I once saw a hawker pour soup into an empty plastic ice cream container and microwave it for a customer. Wowzers.

Then people “ta pau” their meals and the boiling soup gets poured into a simple translucent plastic bag (polyurethane?). When you buy an electronic gadget, check out the plastic packaging inside the box. Look the same?

You might remember the scare about plastic drinking bottles, why its not safe to use them after a certain period. I found an article about how exposure of certain plastics to boiling water released environmental estrogen 55 times faster. It says,

“Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in the plastics that make up water bottles, baby bottles, and other food and drink packaging. It acts as an environmental estrogen and can disrupt the function of the endocrine system.”

Now I don’t know what goes into the cheap plastic dinnerware our hawkers use or if these utensils are required to pass certain health inspections before being sold but I can tell you one thing. Not all plastics are the same.

I have no facts yet and I hope I am wrong, but are those plastic bowls, spoons and chopsticks as innocent as they look? Most people who eat out are Chinese. That demography also happens to suffer the highest occurence of cancer. The coincidence is worrying.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. LC Teh permalink
    July 16, 2008 12:04 pm

    Most kids who were born before the 60s weaned on milk in glass bottles. These however, broke easily and sometimes caused injuries to babies and other kids. When polycarbonate milk bottles came into the scene, it was like sliced bread, every mother’s dream come true. Our kids grew up happily on that.

    We also had Tupperware parties. But along the way mineral water bottles made the scene which broke up the tupperware parties for a while until the DEHA scare< came along. Tupperware parties came alive again after that. But now they have to contend with polycarbonate water bottles.

    That’s part of the long story of the battle of the plastics industry. I wouldn’t be too concerned about using plastic containers for cold food or water but I’d venture to say that we should avoid using PVC totally for keeping or precessing food.

  2. Damien permalink*
    July 16, 2008 1:14 pm

    Hi LC, food wrappers based on phthalates are generally used in homes. Not sure if hawkers use them. I would trust a brand name like Tupperware to have strict quality controls. The kind of plastic I am concerned of is not polycarbonate or soft pvc but the melamine-type hard plastic used in local hawker kitchenware, probably manufactured locally. When new they have a shiny coating that probably serves as a protective layer. But hawkers re-use the same bowls every day long after the protective coating is scratched off. I was curious if that leaches anything into hot food it comes into contact with. Now think of someone who eats hawker fare out of such bowls 3 times a day every day for 30 years. Maybe its nothing but I just have a nagging feeling…

    I’m not too worried about storing food in the fridge using plastic containers. Its eating boiling-hot food out of cheap plasticware that worry me.

  3. July 16, 2008 5:08 pm

    I have no prove. However, IMO plastic bags and plastic dining tools aren’t good for our health, especially if we’re using with hot food and drinks. There sure chemical react but how bad it is to our health, I’ve no idea.

  4. tinytapir permalink
    July 16, 2008 6:50 pm

    Damien, Tupperware products all have Bisphenol-A in them (i recently emailed them about this, and they said they have bisphenol-A and then they gave me the standard corporate line about how there’s nothing wrong with Bisphenol-A). So do Avent, which is the biggest seller of plastic bottles for babies.

    Glass bottles nowadays are very sturdy and do not shatter when dropped – there are products like siliskins – sheaths that encase the glass so that if it does get dropped and shatters, all the glass shards are captured in the sheath.

    When I have a baby I’m definitely using glass bottles.

    By the way, there is evidence that chemicals still leach out of plastic containers that are not heated, i.e. that are static.

    Bisphenol-A is also found lining tins for tinned food and baby formula.

    Plastic ware has not been in common use until the last 20 to 30 years, so it’s about right that we only start seeing the side effects now.

  5. Damien permalink*
    July 17, 2008 7:47 am

    @hyperx, I share the same suspicion too.

    @tinytapir, I didn’t know Tupperware contained BPA. Thanks for the tip. This whole thing started when I got news that one of my friend’s aunts is suffering from terminal cancer. That makes 3 people I know already this year. I thought its just weird that so many Malaysian Chinese die of cancer, something apparently very rare among other races. I just can’t erase that question in my mind: did 30 years of using plastic bowls and chopsticks have anything to do with it?

  6. LC Teh permalink
    July 17, 2008 9:56 am

    An ex-boss was a heavy smoker. When chided about his addiction, he would say that 9 out of 10 who died of cancer were non-smokers. He was mostly overweight as well. He recently passed away aged about 75. With all the large doses of poison going through his lungs and he died of old age, perhaps it’s immunity that helped him stay alive? Perhaps we’re just a little too worried about these minute amounts of poison that seep into our food. All I know, cancer cells do exist in all of us. Worrying about these things might trigger them to activity. I’d rather stop worrying about it.

  7. Damien permalink*
    July 17, 2008 12:24 pm

    Ha ha, telepathic cancer cells. πŸ™‚ I should be like my celebrity friend who wants to die in style: young, rich, worshipped for his good looks, and while he’s asleep so that its painless. The rest of us don’t really have a choice do we, not that he does either.

  8. LC Teh permalink
    July 17, 2008 5:49 pm

    Yeah, while hanging and wifing goes by destiny, nothing’s as sure as death and taxes…

    BTW come to think of it, the people I knew who died of various forms of cancer were all non-smokers!!! Ahhh… immunity.

  9. July 17, 2008 11:53 pm

    Smoking doesn’t cause cancer but it does increase the chance of getting cancer (although not by much):

    plus other than that, it’s a gross dirty smelly habit and generally I don’t know any smokers that :
    1. smell good
    2. don’t have smoker’s cough
    3. have good skin / healthy complexions
    4. actually FEEL healthy

    It might be suggested that smoking weakens the constitution and therefore makes heavy smokers more susceptible to weaknesses in their genetic makeup – therefore your uncle who died at 75, might have had a better quality of life and lived until 90 if he didn’t smoke. Don’t forget 75 year olds nowadays have not been as exposed to chemicals and pollution etc as we will be when we’re 75.

    In the same way, one could also argue that there is no statistical evidence that there is an increase in cancer in younger populations – just that in previous generations diagnosis was not as good or people died more of other diseases which they no longer do now (due to inoculations etc), so they didn’t die of cancer etc.

    Whatever it is, we won’t know for sure until it’s too late so to speak. Personally, I would prefer to avoid it if I can – after all, nothing wrong with glass and ceramics, aesthetically it’s more pleasing to eat off those two mediums than plastic anyway.

  10. Damien permalink*
    July 18, 2008 7:15 am

    @LC, seems like anything can trip our “off” button these days. Ever heard of the saying, “So happy can die.” Hahahaha πŸ˜›

    @TT, from the younger generation’s point of view, #1 and 2 increases one’s macho factor and #3 and 4 attracts the sympathy of the opposite sex, so your 5 points actually makes smoking more attractive – to juveniles. By the time they grow up and realize the real danger, their lungs are thoroughly blackened and so they say well its too late so I’ll continue to smoke. Do you suppose drinking goes well with smoking because when you’re drunk you don’t notice the smell.


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