Plastic not so fantastic?

Plastic not so fantastic?
Study points to health risks of plastic, but local experts say food containers here are safe.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Is it really safe to use plastic food containers?

The authorities and doctors here say they are safe for now, despite a recent study which found that exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastic products can lead to lower IQ, adult obesity and male infertility, among other problems.

"So far, our laboratory results have shown that food-contact articles used in Singapore meet our safety standards and are safe for handling food," a spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority told The Straits Times.

The study by a panel of experts found that prenatal exposure to the controversial Bisphenol A chemical, or BPA -a hormone disruptor - had a 20 to 69 per cent probability of causing 42,400 new cases of childhood obesity annually, with associated lifetime costs of €1.54 billion (S$2.33 billion) in Europe.

The researchers, who hail from the likes of Harvard and New York universities, also estimated a 70 to 100 per cent likelihood that IQ loss was linked to exposure to organophosphate, commonly used to increase the plasticity or fluidity of a material.

Male infertility was also linked to phthalate - a group of chemicals used in plastics which were found to have an estimated 40 to 69 per cent probability of causing 618,000 additional assisted reproductive technology procedures annually in Europe.

Published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in March, the study is the most comprehensive to date and adds to the growing literature about the harmfulness of endocrine disruptors.

An endocrine disruptor is a synthetic chemical which, when absorbed into the body, mimics or blocks hormones and disrupts the body's normal functions. They are in things such as food containers, plastics, toys and cosmetics.

Research has long drawn links between these chemicals in plastics and health problems - but less documented are how much and how long before they become a risk to consumers.

Dr Ben Ng, an endocrinologist from Arden Endocrinology Specialist Clinic in Singapore, said the study suggests that more regulation in the manufacturing of endocrine disruptors can provide health and economic benefits, but more research is needed.

"Most of the data in the paper is interpretation and informed speculation, and we should accept the data as such," he said.

The European Food Safety Authority has maintained that there is no consumer health risk from oral BPA exposure, when food is consumed from plastic containers, for example, as it is way below the tolerable daily intake.

They said health effects were seen only at levels hundreds of times above the tolerable level.

However, some people, like construction manager Shie Chee Hwa, do not want to take any chances. He does not reuse plastic mineral water bottles and avoids buying hot food in plastic containers as the chemicals have been known to leech into food when the containers are heated.

But, he said, "sometimes we do not have a choice. We cannot be carrying a bowl around".

Dr Abel Soh, a specialist in endocrinology and consultant at Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre, said people should avoid heating food in plastic containers or using them to store fatty foods, as endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been found to accumulate in fats.

"As far as possible, we should (also) use plastic products that are BPA-free," he said.

OBESITY

A study found that prenatal exposure to Bisphenol A chemical, or BPA - an endocrine disruptor - had a 20 to 69 per cent probability of causing 42,400 new cases of childhood obesity annually.

IQ LOSS

The researchers also estimated a 70 to 100 per cent likelihood that IQ loss is linked to exposure to organophosphate - which is commonly used to increase the plasticity or fluidity of a material.

INFERTILITY

Male infertility was also linked to phthalate - a group of chemicals used in plastics with 40 to 69 per cent probability of causing 618,000 additional assisted reproductive technology procedures annually in Europe.

samboh@sph.com.sg


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