Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 14 February 2016





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Government Gazette


Plastic containers and lunch sheets may be everyone's go to convenience, but danger lurks in every box, bottle and sheet warn health experts:

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 margarine container?

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.

"Those 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".

Health impacts

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," he warns.

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 first."

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 degradable.

"That is why plastic must never be used for land filling", says Dr Gunathilaka.

"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."




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