I’ve seen grown men gasp when looking at the “before” and “after” photos of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko. In September, Yuschenko was poisoned with enough dioxin to send his blood levels soaring — six thousand times higher than normal, the newswires report — and the effects are shocking. Before: Clark Gable. After: Quasimodo. The toxins metabolize so slowly that, to lower the levels of dioxin in his blood, Yuschenko’s doctors are considering liposuction.
Obviously, Yuschenko’s case is extreme, but prolonged exposure to lower levels of dioxins, a group of chemical compounds that are normally produced through combustion (forest fires, burning PCBs) has been connected to increased risk for cancer, liver damage, and reproductive effects. The reappearance of dioxin in the news has brought back a set of rumors around dioxins and household plastics that have been swirling around the Internet for years.
Passed via e-mail — and, in my circle of friends, around the dinner table — the rumors come in the form of advice: Don’t microwave your food in Styrofoam containers. Don’t cover bowls of food with Saran Wrap when you nuke them. Don’t store fatty cheeses in plastic wrap. Apparently, when you heat up these plastics, they release dioxins into the food you’re cooking, and fatty meats and cheeses are especially prone to sucking up the toxins. As are you.
According to TruthorFiction.com, a site devoted to busting e-myths, these rumors come from a chain e-mail that quoted a January 2002 radio interview with Dr. Edward Fujimoto, who advised people to stop using plastic in the microwave because of possible dioxin contamination. But there’s little research to back up his claims.
Yes, dioxins are released when plastics are incinerated, says Christopher De Rosa, director of the division of toxicology at the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. But if you’re heating up your food in plastic, “the primary source of dioxins in that scenario would be the food itself,” he says. Dioxins tend to bioaccumulate in the food chain, so fish, dairy products, and meats are the primary way humans ingest dioxin.
However, says De Rosa, plastic wraps contain a family of chemicals known as phthalate esters, which are known to be endocrine disruptors. De Rosa thinks the amounts of phthalates that migrate from plastic wrap to food in the microwave are insignificant: “That’s really such a low-level exposure that it would be difficult to do a response assessment to characterize the risk.” However, he says that study of phthalates and other plasticizers are “an active area of research,” which means that scientists don’t know for sure.
If plastic wrap still makes you nervous, switch to paper towels when you microwave your food. And you should be wrapping your good cheese in waxed paper anyway. But don’t do it because of the dioxins — do it because of the taste.