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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.

What the FDA Says

With all of these strange words being thrown around, we need the Food and Drug Administration to play big brother to food packaging companies and keep a watchful eye on their practices, and their plastic. How do they weigh in on the subject?

"Generally speaking, any food that you buy in a plastic container with directions to put it in the microwave has been tested and approved for safe use," says George Pauli, associate director of Science and Policy at the FDA's Center for Food and Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Any food packaging company that wants to put their food in plastic must pass muster with the FDA first.

"What the industry does and runs by us for approval is simulated testing to determine what could come out of the container," says Pauli. "We assume there will always be something that will leach out of the container into the food, so we look at how much someone could consume over a lifetime and compare that with what we know about the toxicity of the substance."

Basically, the FDA determines how much of a certain substance can you consume during your lifetime with little to no risk. So whether it's phthalates or bisphenol A or another chemical, the FDA's job is to make sure that the amount you're ingesting is within safe limits.

Urban Legend Debunked

The dioxin urban legend is debunked, and while the experts have slightly different opinions on phthalates and bisphenol A, they do agree on one thing: You don't need to throw out your frozen dinners or your plastic storage containers, and you should use your plastics as they're intended.

"You want to use containers for the purpose for which they were designed," says Pauli. "All testing in food safety containers is tested to be safe under the intended conditions of use. If it says suitable for microwaving, it is."

And if you slip up once in a while and throw your dinner into the microwave on a cheap plastic plate that says "Do Not Microwave," do not panic.

"Our safety evaluations are based on lifetime use, so an occasional mistake now and then doesn't need to cause panic," says Pauli. "The amounts of leaching are very small. I'm not saying it's not unhealthy, you're just going into the unknown."

As for the mass email and its unknown author, "This one was put on the Internet and the facts got mixed up," says Halden. And he agrees, "If you do use the plastics in the microwave, make sure you use materials that are approved for that purpose."

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