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Fact-check: Can the use of plastic food containers cause cancer?

Published on Thu 31 Aug 2023 at 09:06

The safety of storing food in plastic containers, typically, depends on the type of plastic and its intended use.

By Florica Brahma

When the question is about the safety of storing food in plastic containers – a common practice in many households – there is a growing sense of uncertainty. This can be attributed to the lack of substantial scientific evidence to establish a causal connection between the use of plastic food containers and chronic diseases such as cancer. 

“Bisphenol A (BPA) consumption shows a slight increase in incidence of breast cancer due to an alteration in estrogen metabolism. Otherwise, there is no evidence, as of today, to prove that plastics can directly cause cancer,” says Dr Adithya Naragund, senior consultant – gastrointestinal and hepato-pancreato-biliary (GI & HPB) surgery, Cytecare Cancer Hospitals, Bengaluru, India. 

A common concern is about heating food in plastic containers in a microwave. Can it cause cancer? The fear is related to the release of dioxins in food, but they are not inherent components of plastics. Instead, dioxins form during the combustion of waste materials such as plastics, metals, wood, and other substances. As long as food is not incinerated within a microwave, the risk of dioxin exposure remains minimal.

“It is not recommended to use recycled plastic containers. When food is stored in such containers, a chemical interaction can occur between the plastic and the food, resulting in acidity and detrimental effects on one’s health,” informs Thaya Nachappa, Associate Manager – Onco Nutrition, at Cytecare Cancer Hospitals.

Studies indicate that chronic exposure to phthalates (chemicals that make plastic soft and flexible) can adversely influence the endocrine system and functioning of multiple organs, which has negative long-term impacts on reproductive health, child growth and development.

The safety of storing food in plastic containers, typically, depends on the type of plastic and its intended use. For example, a common type of plastic that is used in plastic containers, polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) is generally considered safe for single-use applications, but is not suitable for repeated use or heating. It’s advisable to invest in plastic containers labeled as “food-grade” or “BPA-free” for food storage.