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Pick your poison

Rocket fuel and plastic nasties showing up in food

"Thirty-five percent of all cancers are related to what you eat."

— John Hopkins Medicine

Last week it was fire retardants. Now you can add a chemical used to make solid rocket fuel and weapons to the list of toxins showing up in breast milk.

Right-o. Rocket fuel.

Another study published by the American Chemical Society in its respected journal Environmental Science and Technology stated that 36 nursing mothers in 18 American states had levels of perchlorate in their breast milk that averaged five times higher than levels found in 47 samples of regular dairy milk sold in local stores. This is not a good thing.

Besides rocket fuel and weapons, perchlorate is used to manufacture fireworks (it adds that "explosive" touch). It can also be caused in nature by lightning. Wherever it comes from – in this case most likely from improper manufacturing and disposal – it settles into soil or ground water and ends up in sources like the mighty Colorado River, which provides drinking water to Los Angeles and Las Vegas and elsewhere. An earlier study some two years ago in the U.S. also found the nasty chemical in 18 per cent of lettuce samples at levels four times higher than those considered safe.

According to the Environmental Working Group, perchlorate can, amongst other things, affect the thyroid gland's ability to make essential hormones, which, for children and babies, can negatively affect brain functioning, hearing and speech, and motor skills.

But you’re not worried, right? Because you buy bottled water whenever you visit California. But hey, what’s that plastic bottle doing to you?

Could be lots, depending on which type of plastic it’s made of, according to the Children's Health Environmental Coalition ( e House). Good old mom. She’s been warning me for years about using plastics and food, especially in the microwave. And this is a gal who grew up on Tupperware. But she can’t hold a torch to the rationales from CHEC.

Nancy and Jim Chuda started the Children's Health Environmental Coalition when their daughter died of a non-genetic form of cancer at age five. Their aim: to track carcinogens that children are exposed to and ultimately eliminate children's exposure to man-made toxic substances. I say good luck with all those weapons getting’ made and rockets flyin’ around down there.

But seriously, this is a noble cause and the Chudas have done a lot of good work in spreading the word. Granted they run in pretty high circles and let you know it – Olivia-Newton John is a close personal friend and Erin Brockovich, as in the Erin Brockovich of movie fame, is currently on their board. But don’t let that get in the way of some pretty good information.

But wait a sec, plastics are everywhere. So they must be pretty benign, right? Bzzzzzt. Wrong, says CHEC.

Let’s start with that handy place where we all heat up the tasty leftovers we couldn’t bear to leave on our plates at Caramba.

First of all, we shouldn’t even think of nuking that pasta in the microwave in the styrofoam container we dragged home. And sticking it in some born-again Tupperware when you get home and then nuking it is almost as bad. Worse: dumping it on a plate and covering it with a piece of plastic wrap whose brand name shall remain anonymous in order to avoid any free PR for same.

Here’s the scoop: Plastic plus hot plus fat is the worst combination because most chemicals that leach from plastic are lipophilic (meaning they love fat) and high temperatures accelerate the leaching process into fat.

So what do you use? Glass, glass and glass. Or Pyrex-type dishes. And no plastic lids. And definitely no margarine tubs or yogurt cups. Come on you big cheapskate. Spring for some proper containers. Or use wide-mouthed jars (just don’t forget to remove the metal lids before nuking).

As for wrap, wax paper is as good as it gets. If you don’t like it bulging out at the side, try a rubber band.

Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, commonly known as vinyl, is the worst plastic from an environmental and health point of view. (Man, I’m thinking of all that PVC pipe we plumbed our house with in Hawaii.)

PVC is used in plastic trays in boxed cookies or chocolates, candy bar wrappers, bottles and babies’ teethers. Cling wraps, especially those used commercially to wrap meats, cheeses and deli foods, can also be made from PVC.

The concerns with this plastic are many. Vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, is a known human carcinogen according to the World Health Organization. The manufacture of PVC also creates and disperses dioxins and lead.

When it comes to food, traces of toxic chemicals (adipates and phthalates) used to soften PVC can leak out into them. These chemicals are linked to reproductive problems, birth defects and liver tumours in mice, and disrupting hormones in young animals. (Remember the news stories about male alligators in Florida with no penises and breasts?) Again, the risk of leaching is especially high with fatty foods and at higher temperatures.

Nuking the plastic nasties

Maybe we can’t do much about the rocket fuel moving through waterways – oh don’t get too smug because we live in Canada. Where do you think those U.S. rivers dump into? Space?

But plastics around food can be minimized, if not eliminated.

If you have to use them, go for the ones that are marked 1, 2, 4 and 5 for recycling in the little recycle symbol on the bottom of the container. They’re less toxic (PVC is number 3). While 1, 2, 4, and 5 might leach chemicals into foods, no studies so far suggest that these chemicals are hormone disruptors or impact health.

And don’t forget these other save-the-earth tips, which might seem old and faded but ironically warrant even more serious consideration that ever:

• Use packaging made from truly recyclable materials: paper, glass, metal cans.

• Bring your own glass container to salad bars or any place you’ll be served in plastic.

• Buy in bulk, whenever possible. It’s the least-packaged option.

• For wrapped foods, go for butcher’s paper or waxed paper. And don’t worry about saving trees. We can grow more. It’s the oil we’re running out of.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who promises not to write about anything nasty next time.