You work hard to fill your plates and bowls with healthy organic food. Too bad that tableware you're munching your tasty meals on could be disrupting your efforts to keep chemicals out of the kitchen. If you use melamine dishes, anyway.
Melamine is a chemical used in making plastics, adhesives and industrial coatings. In the U.S., melamine is used to manufacture plastic products, paper, paperboard and kitchenware, including bowls, plates, mugs and utensils, as well as other products. In other countries melamine is even used as a fertilizer, although it’s not “registered” for that use in the U.S., according to the FDA. Melamine is also the very same chemical found in tainted baby formula that killed six babies in China in 2008 and sickened thousands more.
Melamine? Plastic? What’s the difference?
Melamine is a component in certain plastic tableware. When combined with formaldehyde, melamine becomes melamine resin, a substance that can be molded to create tableware when heated. You’ve probably seen (or used) melamine dishes, even if you may not be familiar with the name. Melamine plates, bowls and cups are hard plastic dishes that are extremely durable, crack-proof and come in a wide array of shapes, colors and patterns. They have a distinct smooth texture.
Like most plastic tableware, melamine dishes can potentially pose health risks by leaching chemicals into your food. You already know microwaving food in plastic containers (even microwave-safe plastic) is a health no-no. A recent study questions whether melamine dishes specifically are safe to use at all, microwave or no microwave.
Is melamine tableware safe?
A January 2013 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that melamine can leach from dishes into food, and consequently your body, if you use melamine tableware with hot foods. The study looked at 12 individuals. Six ate hot soup for breakfast out of melamine bowls and the other six ate it out of ceramic bowls. The study found higher levels of melamine excreted from the individuals’ urine after using a melamine bowl as opposed to a ceramic bowl.
“Although the clinical significance of what levels of urinary melamine concentration has not yet been established, the consequences of long-term melamine exposure still should be of concern,” wrote the study's authors, led by Dr. Chia-Fang Wu, a researcher at Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan.
As the study’s authors note, this study didn’t look at any potential health risks associated with using melamine tableware—just that the chemical can leach into food from the dishes. In high concentrations, melamine contamination can put people at risk for kidney stones, kidney failure and even death. The FDA notes, however, that the risk level of melamine seeping into food from tableware is low, and that melamine tableware can be used so long as you don’t heat food using the tableware, especially acidic food.
Better eating alternatives
Still, why bother with the stuff? So many other eco-friendly kitchenware options exist—bamboo, stainless steel, ceramic, glass. Why eat off of anything that even has the potential to be unsafe? Grab a different dish.
By the way, melamine isn't recyclable. This makes a real eco-conundrum if you want to get rid of melamine kitchenware. Try to find new ways to reuse your melamine dishes in your home before trashing them. Maybe use a bowl to hold jewelry, or nestle plates under potted plants to catch extra water? Get creative!
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image: ancient history