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Microwave Cooking in Plastic Containers and Wraps:
Can Chemicals Leach into Food and Cause Cancer? .
by Matt Moody, Ph.D.

This is mostly a Myth, but there is a small grain of truth: When food is microwaved in plastic wrap or plastic containers, chemicals used in manufacturing plastic, called plasticizers, "can" leak into the food. In particular, fatty foods such as meats and cheeses "can" cause a plastic softening agent called diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA) to leach.

Although this sounds bad, it's actually LESS harmful compared to drinking bottled water.

First, the amount of chemical migration is extremely small: For plastic containers that are rated "microwave safe," the minimum standard for DEHA migration is 0.05 parts per billion, or in other words, 5 parts per 100,000,000,000 — that's 5 parts in one-hundred billion.

The following comparisons will help you get a sense of perspective:

The FDA standard for contaminants in commercially-sold bottled water is .10 parts per billion; this means the FDA standard for contaminates in bottled water is two times (2 x) greater compared to the standard for plasticizer migration.

Also, drinking Apple Juice is substantially MORE dangerous compared to any supposed harm due to plasticizer migration. A study cited by the St. Peterburg Times found that 25% of Apple Juice samples (brands like Motts, Apple & Eve Organics, and Tree Top) contained between 25 to 35 parts per billion of arsenic.

Thus drinking Apple Juice or Bottled Water involves consuming higher levels of contamination compared to consuming contanminants due to possible plastizer migration, when cooking food in "microwave safe" plastic. On this issue of plasticizer migration, the American Cancer Society makes the following statement:

"The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on its Web site does say substances used to make plastics can leach into foods. But the agency has found the levels expected to migrate into foods to be well within the margin of safety . . . . As for dioxin, the FDA says it “has seen no evidence that plastic containers or films contain dioxins and knows of no reason why they would.”

Frying is the only form of cooking that has ever been associated with the production of trace amounts of dioxins in food. The problem stems from the fact that oils and fats typically used in frying, contain triglycerides. According to Jean Weese, Ph.D. of Auburn University:

"Once these substances reach high temperatures from frying, the fats attached to this glycerol backbone begin breaking down into peroxide and other substances, including, in some cases, dioxins and PCBs [Polychlorinated Biphenyls], another known carcinogen."

Because of the potential production of dioxins and PCB— two dangerous contaminants — frying food in oils is more un-safe compared to microwaving in plastic containers and wrap. Dioxins and PCB are NOT produced while microwaving in plastics.

After their investigation into the issue, Consumer Reports writes "there’s no conclusive evidence that DEHA and DEHP are harmful."

This conclusion contradicts the findings of environmental activist, Gina Solomon, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She maintains that "DEHA has been studied in a number of species of rodents, where it has been shown to interfere with male reproductive function in all species."

An article published in the Wall Street Journal asserts that Dr Solomon's findings are not reliable:

1) The research to which Dr Solomon refers were tests of "DEHP" — and NOT DEHA. Diethylhexyl phthalate (or DEHP) is another chemical that makes plastics flexible.

2) In the United States, DEHP is no longer used in the production of plastic wraps.

3) The lab rodents were fed from 100 to 1000 x more DEHP than the FDA safety standard.

4) The lab rodents not only consumed 100 to 1000 x more than "safe" amounts, but the rodents consumed a steady diet of DEHP over a lifetime, until negative effects appeared.

TOO much of anything can eventually yield negative effects. For example, there are accounts of deaths linked to drinking too much water. Too much Vitamin C can cause diarrhea. Too much Vitamin D can be toxic. And if you want to increase your risk of Colon Cancer just eat too much red meat.

Have you ever eaten an entire Apple . . . seeds and all? Apple seeds contain cyanide. And have you ever imagined that eating too much Tapioca Pudding could be harmful? Curiously, Tapioca comes from the cassava root which is a rich source of cyanide — more potent than apple seeds. But don't worry, a little poison in your Tapioca won't hurt you; just as a little poison in apple seeds (and fruit juices, see below) won't hurt you.

A currious contradiction in health priorites happens when people who SMOKE Cigarettes like a chimney, are meticulous NOT to microwave foods in plastics? HELLO! Reality Check: Cigarette smoking supplies 43 known carcinogens to the body of a smoker — to include arsenic, formaldehyde, lead, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide.

Here's a comparison for the health-conscious consumer: At most, a person might ingest 5 parts per hundred-billion of HEDA, a non-carcinogenic substance, while ingesting "arsenic" contaminants in commercially sold beverages in substantially HIGHER proportions. Remember arsenic is a poison: it will kill you if you eat too much.

Presence of Arsenic in Common Commercial Beverages

Amounts are in MicroGrams of Arsenic per Liter or Parts Per Billion.
For comparison to the safety standard for plasticizer migration — which is
5 parts per hundred billion — red numbers are converted to parts per hundred billion;
with blue numbers representing how many X more contaminants are in commercial beverages.

Commercial Beverages Tested  
   for Arsenic Contamination  

Apple juice  
Beef broth  
Bottled water 1  
Bottled water 2  
Bottled water 3  
Bottled water 4  
Chicken broth  
Cola 1  
Cola 2  
Fruit punch  
Grape juice  
Grapefruit juice  
Iced tea  
Orange juice 1  
Orange juice 2  
Sports drink 1  
Sports drink 2  
Whole milk  

  Arsenic in PPB
  Parts per Billion

  < 0.10
  < 0.10
  < 0.10

Arsenic in PPHB
Parts per Hundred Billion

  1079.0       215 X
852 X
42 X
  < 10.0 *        
 2 X
  < 10.0 *         2 X
  < 10.0 *         2 X
  2281.0       456 X
   209.0         41 X
   152.0         30 X
   366.0         73 X
  4987.0       997 X
   214.0         42 X
   235.0         47 X
   300.0         60 X
   196.0         39 X
   253.0         50 X
   209.0         41 X
   191.0         38 X
   792.0       158 X

* Less than 10 parts per hundred billion is the safety standard for bottled water contamination.

Again, the safety standard for plasticizer migration is 5 parts per hundred billion, OR .05 micrograms per Liter, OR 5 micrograms per 100 Liters. That's 5 micrograms of non-carcinogenic HEDA in 26 - 1/2 gallons of microwaved food. Even if HEDA were poisonous or carcinogenic, 5 micrograms of contaminants dispersed in 26.5 gallons of food cannot harm you. If it could . . . then we all better quit drinking the above-listed beverages.

Bottom Line: Eating food that is Microwaved in plastic containers or wrap (that have been tested and approved as "microwave safe") may leach levels of contamination approximately 2 x LESS than contaminants in commercially-sold bottled water.

Do ingesting microscopic amounts of chemical plasticizers . . . CAUSE CANCER? According to an investigation by Snopes, the answer is . . . NO! In addition, Mayo Clinic Nutritionist, Katherine Zeratsky, explodes the myth that cancer-causing "dioxins" leach into foods while microwaving food in plastics. Remember, only pan frying with oil at high heat can possibly produce dioxins.

Articles on this subject will sometimes recommend that plastic wrap should not touch food while microwaving. This recommendation is NOT because of potential plasticizer migration, but because hot food can MELT the plastic on your food. While eating a little plastic every now and then won't kill you, the larger consideration is . . . taste — a bean burrito with "plastic" glaze is NOT exactly . . . fine dining.

Related Articles: Can Microwaving Change Molecular or Chemical Structure of Food and Water?

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