“Microwave safe”: Not

by revere, cross-posted at Effect Measure

The team of investigative reporting team of Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel just keeps rolling along, this time with an amazing story about how microwave safe plastics are leaching bisphenol-A (BPA) at potentially unsafe levels. We are saying potentially unsafe because we really know little about the effects of hormone mimics like BPA except that at levels currently found in BPA containing plastics in contact with food and liquids produce biological effects in test systems and a recent analysis of a representative survey of US adults showed an association between self-report of heart disease and adult onset diabetes (Type II) and blood abnormalities in liver function tests (see our post here). That’s preliminary but the animal data are pretty consistent. BPA is not something we want to expose our children or ourselves to and consumers are voting with their feet, trying to avoid BPA containing products. But to avoid them, a consumer has to have accurate information. When they see a label on a product that says “microwave safe,” they can be forgiven if they interpret this to mean it’s OK to heat the item in the microwave. Rust and Kissinger decided to see if it was true. They took ten “microwave safe” products, used them as directed and sent the results to a laboratory to measure BPA:

Products marketed for infants or billed as “microwave safe” release toxic doses of the chemical bisphenol A when heated, an analysis by the Journal Sentinel has found.The newspaper had the containers of 10 items tested in a lab – products that were heated in a microwave or conventional oven. Bisphenol A, or BPA, was found to be leaching from all of them.

The amounts detected were at levels that scientists have found cause neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals. The problems include genital defects, behavioral changes and abnormal development of mammary glands. The changes to the mammary glands were identical to those observed in women at higher risk for breast cancer.

The newspaper’s test results raise new questions about the chemical and the safety of an entire inventory of plastic products labeled as “microwave safe.” BPA is a key ingredient in common household plastics, including baby bottles and storage containers. It has been found in 93% of Americans tested.

The newspaper tests also revealed that BPA, commonly thought to be found only in hard, clear plastic and in the lining of metal food cans, is present in frozen food trays, microwaveable soup containers and plastic baby food packaging.

Food companies advise parents worried about BPA to avoid microwaving food in plastic containers, especially those with the recycling No. 7 stamped on the bottom.

But the Journal Sentinel’s testing found BPA leaching from containers with different recycling numbers, including Nos. 1, 2 and 5. (Susanne Rust, Meg Kissinger, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

 

Not surprisingly the trade association for the chemical industry, the American Chemistry Council, says it is nonsense and that the newspaper does a “serious disservice by drawing a conclusion about product safety that simply cannot be drawn from either this study or the overall body of scientific research.” The argument seems to be the same one they used with the FDA: that the levels are too low to matter. But the FDA was recently rebuked by an independent panel for not heeding abundant scientific data that biological effects are possible at the doses found in the Journal-Sentinel tests.

So was the law broken when these products were “microwave safe”? No. Because there is no regulation that governs whether you can put “microwave safe” on your product. The newspaper targeted their testing to products most likely to be consumed by infants and children, replacing the food by a mixture of alcohol and water (a standard laboratory practice that removes the variation in food content as a variable and may underestimate the amount of leaching). The highest leaching was found in a can of Enfamil liquid infant formula and a Rubbermaid plastic food-storage container. Dispolable frozen-food containers had the lowest amount of leaching. Here is the list of the ten products tested:

  • Munchkin bowls
  • Gerber Graduates Pasta Pick-ups
  • Rubbermaid Premier food storage container
  • Gerber 2nd Foods Hawaiian Delight dessert
  • Campbell’s Just Heat & Enjoy tomato soup
  • Enfamil liquid baby formula
  • Hormel chili
  • Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and Stouffer’s lasagna
  • Playtex VentAire baby bottles also were tested, but the company has since reformulated the product to eliminate bisphenol A

Canada is banning sale, advertising or import of BPA containing products to infants and children. The US FDA, after first declaring BPA safe, is now being forced to re-evaluate. They will take their time and probably nothing will happen until we get an administration truly interesting in keeping us safe from corporations (63 ore days, in case you lost count). Demands for action are rising, nonetheless, and companies aren’t waiting:

Increasingly, consumer groups are calling for BPA to be banned. Last month, the consumer watchdog Environmental Working Group sent letters to infant formula makers, asking them to stop packaging their products in containers made with BPA.The attorneys general in New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware sent letters to 11 companies that make baby bottles and baby formula containers, asking that they voluntarily stop using BPA.

Six U.S. senators have called for a federal ban on the chemical, and more than 35 lawsuits have been filed in recent years against companies using BPA, claiming the chemical has caused physical harm.

Companies are beginning to proactively back away from BPA. In April, after Canada’s announcement of a ban, several corporations said they would stop producing and selling certain products made with BPA. The companies and retailers include Nalgene, Wal-Mart, Toys “R” Us, Playtex and CVS pharmacies.

 

Again, kudos to Rust and Kissinger at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. They’ve done on a pittance what the US FDA has failed to do. It’s not money. It’s the will do it.