Plastic containers and lunch sheets may be everyone's
go to convenience, but danger lurks in every box, bottle and sheet warn
Are you a plastic addict? Do you serve your food sizzling hot
straight from the cooking pot into a plastic container? Or on to a lunch
sheet? Or else microwave your food in a non microwavable plastic
container like say, an empty ice cream container or even an empty
Most people believe using plastic containers or a wafer thin lunch
sheet to wrap their food is okay. And that recycling cooked food in
plastic containers for a few seconds won't harm their health. However,
extensive studies are now revealing that exposure to the deadly
chemicals that plastics contain even for the briefest period is enough
to result in a life long period of ill health and reduce your life span
considerably in the process.
seemingly innocent plastic containers and lunch sheets can contain a
wide ranging number of hidden dangers lurking inside them," warns Head
of Toxicology Information Centre, Dr. Waruna Gunathilaka. He points his
finger to one particular obnoxious chemical; dioxin. Research studies on
exposure of the human body to dioxin have been well documented and
proven, he says. But not everyone still understands this chemical or are
aware of the extensive damage they can cause the human body.
And the thinner the plastic the more dangerous a risk it poses.
Recognition of this fact was possibly the reason why the Central
Environment Authority (CEA) decided to ban the manufacture, sale and use
of polythene less than 20 microns in thickness as far back as 2007,
under the National Environment Act on the directive of the former Health
Minister, President Maithripala Sirisena.
Yet the ban seems to have done nothing to halt the flood of plastics
into the market.
Today, society is literally invaded by a deluge of plastics. They
come in different thicknesses and colours, the bulk of the thinner and
sub-quality grades being used for domestic purposes, such as the 'sili
sili' bags. "These ubiquitous bags are a danger to our health and the
environment, as they often make their way to waterways, like canals,
rivers and lakes and also dumping grounds. Collectively, they are among
the biggest polluters of ground water, which people in certain areas use
for drinking purposes," Dr. Gunathilaka says.
As he points out, "Dioxins and dioxin like substances can form in the
production of plastics. These chemicals have long lasting effects as
they act as persistent organic pollutants in the environment."
Responding to a question by the Sunday Observer, on how safe it was
to burn plastics along with other refuse in garbage bon fires, he says
emphatically, "This is a very dangerous practice. Plastics should not be
incinerated (burned) at any time. It causes dioxin to be emitted to the
environment. As they persist for a very long period in the soil, they
expose us to needless health risks".
When asked about the health risks and what way dioxin impact on
health, he says, "Exposure to this deadly chemical can result in
reproductive abnormalities such as low sperm count and chromosomal
changes such as congenital abnormalities. The most serious danger is
that they can cause cancer in various parts of the body wherever they
have been exposed to the deadly chemical."
Meanwhile, Infertility Physician and Clinical Embryologist, Dr
Helaruwan Pas Kumara from a leading Colombo hospital, confirming this as
a fact, says "Any toxic chemical can have harmful effects on the human
body. It can affect the sperm count in men and cause reproductive health
problems. It can also stop the development of the uterus. Pregnant women
are also at risk"
Dr Gunathilaka also notes that Polycarbonated plastics are made with
a chemical known as Bisphenol-A (BPA). "This is a hormone disruptive
chemical and must be avoided at all costs, as it affects young children
particularly. If you are bottle feeding your child, make sure the
feeding bottles are BPA free- along with all other items used to feed
the baby. If not, it can put your child at risk of hormone disruption,"
We ask him about plastic containers used to microwave food.
"This too is a very dangerous practice," he says, urging, "Only use
containers that are compatible with microwaving. Any other type of
container is not safe and can release toxic chemicals".
When questioned about alternative containers that can be use instead,
he says, "Use glass or ceramic ware. They are easy to clean, more
hygienic and safer. As they don't emit toxic chemicals to the
surroundings, they are also environmentally friendly." He adds another
cooking useful tip: "When cooking in a microwave oven wrap the food
CEA and wildlife
Director Waste Management, Central Environment Authority, Ajith
Weerasundara, says dioxin is harmful not just for humans but marine life
and wildlife as well.
"Dioxin is a combination of two chemicals- dioxin and furon. These
chemicals are carcinogenic and can cause cancer depending on the extent
of exposure. The thinner plastics (less than 20 microns) are more
dangerous because they can't easily be collected or recycled. Only the
thicker plastics can be recycled," he notes.
He cautions that for food grades one must use only virgin plastic
(fresh non recycled plastic), because recycled plastic may contain some
toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
Around 200 collectors and recycling firms are currently registered
with the CEA. Yet, in spite of the availability of recycling plants, he
laments at least 70 percent of plastic and polythene used in homes
including yoghurt cups and spoons end up in garbage heaps. Buried inside
compost pits or simply allowed to scatter on the ground, they remain
mouldering beneath the earth for hundreds of years since they are non
"That is why plastic must never be used for land filling", says Dr
"Unfortunately this is being done in many parts where new buildings
are coming up. This can cause the same toxic dioxin contaminants to
filter into the ground water and affect the waterways, harming both
human health and marine life," he points out
Studies in certain areas have shown that marine life has been
endangered by plastic in the sea, while even cattle, dogs, elephants,
deer and wild animals have been harmed by eating plastic from garbage
heaps, points out Weerasundara, adding, "We are taking steps to make a
clean sweep of plastics. Our officers are being sent out to various
shopping outlets to check on plastic lunch sheets and 'sili sili' bags
to ensure they are not less than 20 microns."
Recycling plastic agro chemic containers
He warns the public to refrain from recycling plastic containers used
for agro chemicals such as pesticides and weedicides.
"Some people use them to store oil sold in bulk to the open market.
Or else store some other food items. This is dangerous as these
containers have already absorbed the chemicals and pesticides, he warns,
adding that Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) used for domestic purposes is also
a health hazard, especially for pregnant women, as it could affect the
foetus in their womb.
Dr Gunathilaka commenting further says, "Since dioxin and dioxin like
substances can form during the production or plastics, it is very
important that all those involved in the manufacturing of plastics must
wear protective devices. Local plastic manufacturing firms must keep
this in mind to safeguard the health of their employees".
Colombo Municipal Council Public Health Chief, Dr Ruwan Wijeyamuni,
while agreeing that 'sili sili' bags are a menace to public health, is
more concerned about the indiscriminate use of lunch sheets. "Whether a
lunch sheet is 20 microns or 40 microns, it is still a health hazard
because it is made of polyethylene and is a petroleum product. Many
chemicals to make up a lunch sheet in addition to the stabilisers used
to enhance their strength. From polyethylene, ethylene can leak into
food especially when food is hot and oily. Most of our food contains oil
and most people serve it hot from the fire to their lunch sheets. When
oil based food comes in contact with plastic there can be a very slow
leakage of ethylene into food into the body."
He says habitual use of lunch sheets can have a prolonged effect
since using lunch sheets throughout their life span can cause very small
particles of ethylene to enter the blood stream and accumulate in the
fat cells. "An average family of five would probably use around eight
lunch sheets a day: two separate sheets for breakfast and lunch and
again a couple of lunch sheets to wrap their dinner if they are all
working or going to studying. So starting at an early age until most of
their life span, people are exposed to this hazard. They can end up with
cancer of the large bowel, develop leukaemia and also have unexplained
allergies," he warns.
Asked for typical symptoms to look for, he says, "It could start with
a tingling of the mouth, unexplained dysphagia (difficulty in
swallowing), poor digestion and unexplained heart burn, puffiness of
stomach, regurgitation and unexplained allergies caused after a meal
wrapped in a plastic lunch sheet."
So what is the CMC doing to get rid of this menace?
"Since the CEA is the authority handling this, we are facilitating
them by getting our PHI's to visit wholesale eating outlets and way side
boutiques to inspect their lunch sheets and see they are not less than
20 microns in thickness. If any shop owner is found guilty of selling
lunch sheets below the required standard, our inspectors will
immediately inform the CEA so that they can take action."