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How Safe are Holiday Leftovers Microwaved in Plastic?

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Posted: 12/12/2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Most people don’t think twice covering their holiday leftovers in plastic and re-heating them in the microwave. But maybe they should, says Dr. Glen Aukerman of Ohio State University Medical Center.

Studies done elsewhere have shown that in some plastics, a chemical called DEHA can seep into food when heated, and high levels have been shown to cause cancer in some lab animals. Aukerman urges consumers to follow guidelines offered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov, on how to safely re-heat food in the microwave.

“So, if you do what the FDA says, are you safe? I think you really are,” says Aukerman, who is director of Ohio State’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “Do most Americans do what the FDA says? I don’t think so.”

For example, the guidelines call for leaving at least two inches of space between plastic wrap and food when microwaving. In addition, microwave-safe plastic wrap should be placed loosely over food to keep in moisture and allow food to cook evenly.

“I don’t know anyone who makes sure there’s at least two-inch between their food and the plastic wrap before they start microwaving,” Aukerman says.
According to the FDA, the following items are safe to use in microwaves: microwave-safe plastic wraps, wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper and white microwave-safe paper towels. Never microwave plastic storage bags, grocery bags, newspapers or aluminum foil.

The FDA cautions against using restaurant carry-out containers – particularly foam plates or boxes – and plastic margarine tubs in the microwave. In addition, plastic microwavable meal containers are meant for “one-time” use only and should not be re-used in the microwave, Aukerman says.

Before using any plastics in the microwave, read the fine print on the packaging to make sure the items are microwave safe. Some plastics carry warnings against using them in microwaves, he says.

“The dilemma is that when consumers look at the fine print, it’s not always clear whether an item is microwavable,” Aukerman says. “I’m concerned that people may unwittingly be coming into contact with dangerous chemical toxicities.”

While there is no evidence yet that chemicals migrating from plastics into food will cause problems in humans, Aukerman tends to err on the side of caution. Instead of using plastic containers, he recommends using glass or microwave-safe containers or plates to re-heat leftovers in the microwave.

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Eileen Scahill
Medical Center Communications