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Mixing Plastic and Food: An Urban Legend?

Word about the dangers of microwaving your food in plastic containers is everywhere, but it may be time for a reality check.
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WebMD Feature

Is heating food in plastic really harmful to your health?

You've probably seen or heard of the email string that's been forwarded around the Internet, warning of the dangers of throwing your food in a plastic container and popping it in the microwave. The unknown author of the foreboding email hints that a component of plastic, called dioxin, can be some pretty scary stuff. When heated, it leaches into your food and, according to the email, can cause all sorts of health problems.

Is there any merit to these claims, or is it an urban legend?

Dioxins

"Dioxins are unwanted byproducts of a number of processes, primarily incineration," says Rolf Halden, PhD, assistant professor in the Center for Water and Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "So when we burn trash, we involuntarily produce dioxins."

Resulting from the burning of things like backyard trash, waste incineration, and forest fires, dioxins can pretty much be found anywhere in the environment. Dioxins are formed as a result of combustion processes such as commercial or municipal waste incineration and from burning fuels (like wood, coal, or oil).

"Dioxins are an environmental contaminant, which means they are ubiquitous," says Halden.

And it's a vicious cycle, too: When dioxins are produced through the burning process, they are caught in the atmosphere. They come back down with rain, settle on earth, and are consumed by animals. Then, as the highest predator on the food chain, man consumes the animals, dioxins and all.

"Once dioxins enter our bodies, they like to stay in the fat tissue," says Halden. "It's a one-way route -- very little is excreted" and it breaks down very slowly.

Dioxins can cause a long list of health problems, depending on the level of exposure, when a person was exposed, and for how long and how often. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, "Dioxin exposure at high levels in exposed chemical workers leads to an increase in cancer." The environmental agency says that based on animal studies dioxin exposure over a long period of time can lead to reproductive and developmental problems.

But the question at hand is, can the dioxins in plastic put a person at risk when heated? The answer will surprise you.

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