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You work hard to fill your plates and bowls with healthy organic food. You may even research the best cookware to keep toxins out of your 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.

Is 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.

Can You Microwave It?

You probably want to know whether melamine is safe to use in the microwave and whether melamine dishes can potentially pose health risks by leaching chemicals into your food. Especially since we already know microwaving food in plastic containers (even microwave-safe plastic) is a health no-no. 

The FDA notes that the risk level of melamine seeping into food from tableware is low, and that melamine can be used so long as you don’t use it to heat food, especially acidic food. So that's a definitive no for using your melamine plates in the microwave! It's also one hell of a caveat considering how necessary and convenient it is to reheat leftovers and considering how many foods are acidic! 

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. Albeit a small sample size, 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. 

Conclusion

While relatively safe according to the FDA, assuming you only use eat cold non acidic foods, why bother with the stuff? If you own melamine dishes and often reheat your leftovers in the microwave, it's time to shop for some real dinnerware. 

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!

Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson, Google+ and Pinterest.

image: ancient history

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