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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.

Dioxins and Plastics

The dioxins in the plastics we microwave are pretty harmless, because quite simply, they don't exist in plastic.

"There is essentially no evidence that there are dioxins in these plastic materials," says Halden.

That's right - nada -- which means when heated in the microwave, it's next to impossible for them to be released.

"You can feel perfectly confident using any plastic that is marked microwaveable in the microwave, and you and your family can use it with health and happiness," says Rob Krebs, director of communications at the American Plastics Council. "The vast majority of plastics used in food wraps and packaging containers do not contain the chemical constitutes that can form dioxins, which are a family of compounds produced by combustion at temperatures greater than 700 degrees Fahrenheit."

And if by chance you do cook your dinner to 700 degrees Fahrenheit and dioxins are leached into the food, chances are it'd be burned to a crisp and you wouldn't eat it anyway.

So now that we can cross dioxins off the list of things that keep us up at night, what else is in the plastic we heat up and eat out of that might put us at risk?

Phthalates & Bisphenol A

"If you are concerned about what happens in the microwave, you shouldn't be concerned about dioxins," says Halden. "Instead, you should consider the chemicals that actually make up plastic, which is a completely different topic."

Phthalates are chemicals that are added to many products, including plastic, that raise some questions. People are exposed to these chemicals through direct contact with products that use phthalates or food in contact with packaging that contains phthalates, says the CDC.

"Phthalates have been in plastics and have been used safely for over 40 years," says Krebs. "We believe that the amounts you would be exposed to on a normal basis have been proven safe for a number of years, and these plastics have been used by everyone from hospitals to mothers."

But while there is safety in numbers like 40 years, it's no guarantee as research continues.

"We are concerned about susceptible populations when it comes to phthalates, such as children and babies," says Halden. "A recent study suggested that there are developmental effects from boys stemming from exposure to phthalates, but this is an area that is evolving; we don't have the body of knowledge for phthalates that we have for dioxins, so we are a little bit behind on understanding the risk they pose."

Bisphenol A (BPA) is another industrial chemical that is used in plastics. It too has been around for years. According to the American Plastics Council web site, "Bisphenol A is one of the most extensively tested materials in use today. The weight of scientific evidence clearly supports the safety of BPA and provides strong reassurance that there is no basis for human health concerns from exposure to BPA."

But like most things, there is no definitive answer.

In an animal study published in the journal Endocrinology in 2004, the conclusion was, "Although there is no evidence of adverse effects in humans who consume bisphenol A orally from plastic food packaging, this exposure and the extensive use of bisphenol A in consumer products warrants more investigation of this compound at low doses for the purposes of risk assessment."

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