MANILA— If you've been ordering more takeout food since the onset of the pandemic, chances are most of your meals come in plastic food packs.
But did you know that while you may be avoiding the coronavirus by staying in and ordering food, your delivery may also pose hazards to your health?
Some 12,000 chemicals are used in making food contact materials (FCMs) or containers used for food, according to the Unwrapped Project, an initiative that aims to prompt action against the use of plastic food packaging, citing dangers found by international toxicology and environmental health experts.
"When consuming food and beverage [in plastic packaging], people are exposed to chemicals... Around 1,200 peer-reviewed studies demonstrate clearly that these chemicals migrate to food we consume, and a large part of the population are exposed to these chemicals," said Miriam Gordon, Policy Director at UPSTREAM, a North American non-profit advocating for systemic changes to fight plastic pollution.
In a media forum held to mark World Health Day on Wednesday, Gordon said that "dietary exposure to food-packaging chemicals present in food is a hundred times greater" than risks posed by pesticide.
Some of the chemicals may be: carcinogenic, or cause cancer; mutagenic, or cause genetic mutations that harm cells, which could also lead to cancer; or toxic to the endocrine and reproductive systems.
Such chemicals are unleashed into food from plastic containers mainly through heat, Gordon said, though "there's also migration" of such substances even without high temperature as a factor.
These toxic chemicals are then transferred to humans once they consume the food.
"There is pretty strong scientific consensus, a greater amount of these plasticizers go into food when in contact with heat," said Gordon, in reference to chemicals that give plastic certain attributes, for instance, whether they are pliable or hard.
"But it’s a question of degree. There is greater amount of migration with heat and plastic bottles sitting in sunlight. There’s also migration without heat," she said in a forum organized by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) Asia Pacific and Break Free From Plastic Asia Pacific.
Gordon noted that there may be a general notion that people may face higher risks at higher doses of chemical exposure through food packs, but added, "That's not true at all. It could be health harming at extremely low doses," she said.
CHEMICALS OF CONCERN
UPSTREAM is calling for the removal of three classes of chemicals from plastic food packs to improve safety:
- PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) - so-called "forever chemicals" that contain linked carbon and fluorine chains that are long lasting; used in packaging material, cookware, water resistant fabric among others;
- Phthalates - a group of chemicals used to make plastic more flexible and durable; found in a wide range of items from personal care products to raincoats and adhesives;
- Bisphenols - group of chemicals used to make plastic hard, such as polycarbonate; found in water bottles, canned food and feminine hygiene products, among others.
Other than these three main groups of chemicals, there are many more whose impact on human health remains unknown, largely because of the non-disclosure of manufacturers, Gordon said.
"It’s very hard when regulations do not require manufacturers to test chemicals to human health hazards," she said.
The public should, therefore, "demand that national governments improve the regulation, require that the manufacturers prove chemicals are safe before they are allowed to be put in the market to begin with."
The other option, of course, is an outright ban.
"But we can also have regulations that specifically ban known classes of hazardous chemicals. We are seeing, there are lots of lists of chemicals of concern and we are seeing government regulation all over the world, banning specific chemicals from food packaging," she said.
HOSPITALS USE PLASTIC FOOD PACKS MORE DURING PANDEMIC
Paeng Lopez, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) Southeast Asia Plastics in Health Care Project Officer, noted that even hospitals have been using more single-use plastic food packs during the pandemic for fear of infection when using reusable ones.
This is on top of the higher amount of non-biodegradable waste hospitals are generating with the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and face masks.
"Because of the fear of infection in hospitals, what they're using now predominantly are disposable plastic," said Lopez, who is also the group's Sustainable Health in Procurement Project Philippine Coordinator.
"They send food to patients throughout hospitals packed in disposal materials, diposable utensils. There’s a lot of single-use plastic waste on top of the surging single-use PPEs," he said.
He cited a "bright ray of hope" as the Department of Health is already drafting a memorandum to address plastic pollution in hospitals.
There is also an ongoing waste audit in several major hospitals to determine the impact of the pandemic on the amount and kind of waste being generated in such facilities.
"We are still running the numbers as data from other hospitals have not been completed yet, but the trend is that for essential plastics, masks are at the top, and for non-essential plastics, it would be utensils and water bottles," he said.
THE BEST OPTION: REUSABLES
While efforts to improve regulation could help address potential hazards posed by plastic food packs, there is another way to prevent exposure to harmful chemicals: shift to reusable packaging.
"The other way is to stop using disposable foodware. There are a lot of new policies around the world calling not just for a ban on single-use plastics but also trying to figure out how to drive businesses to reusables," said Gordon.
One way that is proven through research to change consumer behavior is incentivizing the use of reusable food packs by charging for single-use ones.
Restaurants and cafés should be able to provide customers with reusable and returnable containers, she said.
"Consumers are more likely to change behavior in response to when something costs them more. Putting a charge or fee on disposables are more likely to change behavior than giving discounts. That's what the social research has been telling us," she said.
Gordon's group is also urging restaurants and cafés to return to using reusable plates, cups and utensils as they reopen in areas where the pandemic is easing.
"We are calling on restaurants and the food industry to reopen with reuse. The idea that so many restaurants during the pandemic have opted to move to plastics and disposable foodware when they have been using reusable plates, cups and utensils... it is not providing any greater protection for us during the COVID-19 pandemic," she said.
"We are specifically calling on restaurants to, as they reopen, go back to reusables because they are better for the planet and safe for us to use even during the COVID-19 pandemic," she said.