Packed in peril
Hot and oily food in rigifoam boxes and plastic lunch
sheets scream toxic health hazard:
Those rigifoam (polystyrene) boxes used to pack takeaway snacks,
including rice and curry, could be deadly for your health, medical
officials warn. "These boxes contain Styrene, which is a petroleum
chemical that can leak into the food and cause various illnesses in the
short term and long term," Public Health Chief of the Colombo Municipal
Council (CMC) Dr. Ruwan Wijeyamuni cautioned, explaining that they have
initiated a program to actively discourage the use of these materials by
CMC is currently carrying out awareness programmes alerting vendors to
the dangers of packing any kind of food in these containers, especially
hot and oily food. Although takeaway lunches are not served directly
into these boxes, if polythene paper is used to serve the food and then
placed inside a rigfoam box, this poses a double hazard for the
consumer, Dr. Wijeyamuni said.
With regard to lunch sheets, he said the CMC has already sent out
officials to inspect food outlets and ensure they comply with the latest
regulation by the Consumer affairs Authority (CAA) that specifies
plastic or polythene should be over 20 microns in thickness. However,
Dr. Wijeyamuni said whether the lunch sheets were 20 microns or 40
microns, the fact was plastic and polythene contain toxic chemicals and
should be avoided at any cost.
Information Director CAA, Chandrika Tillekeratne said her officers
were also closely monitoring the sale and use of all plastic lunch
sheets to ensure they are over 20 microns in thickness. "We have however
not yet received any instructions with regard to rigifoam boxes," she
said, but confided they were ready to assist in any way they can if a
request is made.
Whether in urban areas or in rural villages, Polystyrene boxes, like
the ubiquitous 'sili sili' bags, have invaded every household and eating
outlet. Fancy restaurants and posh star class posh hotels use them to
pack takeaway meals for customers. Housewives use them to pack
sandwiches, rolls and snacks for their children's tea break and Tiffin.
Wayside boutiques and tiny eateries use them to pack 'thosai', 'vadai',
'kotthu rotti' and string hoppers, not forgetting the accompanying
spices and hot gravy or curry on top.
Invariably, after every meal, most people quench their thirst with
water from a used plastic bottle, which has been refilled with piped
water, putting them at risk to yet another health hazard.
"What they are doing is very dangerous," Dr Wijeyamuni noted, adding
that not only were the hapless denizens eating food packed in containers
that are harmful to their health, they were re-using plastic bottles not
meant for re-cycling, which is equally damaging to their health.
The Head of National Toxicology Information Centre, Dr Waruna
Gunathilake, meanwhile warned that it was not just health of the present
day denizens, but the health of our future citizens that was at stake.
"We have scientific evidence to prove this," he backed his concerns.
Explaining how using rigifoam boxes impact on health, he said these
petroleum based products contain polystyrene, which contain two
chemicals, Styrene and Benzene. "These chemicals interact with warm
food, drinks (of all types - fruit and fizzy drinks included), and acid
food like pineapple, pickle and lime and have adverse effects on one's
health," he said
When asked how this happens, he said when Polystyrene comes into
contact with any of the foods mentioned, it leaches the two toxic
chemicals, which are fat soluble, into the food. "They can easily leach
into the butter used in a sandwich or oil used to fry a roll," he said,
urging for caution when packing fried rice or fried noodles, which are
oily, into these boxes, or pouring gravy on top of food served in a rig
foam box, leaving room for it to spill into the box .
He also cautioned food vendors and housewives against warming food
contained in rigifoam boxes, in a microwave oven. "Even a few seconds of
heat especially intense heat from a microwave machine, can be deadly
since Benzene and Styrene both react adversely to heat," he said
When questioned about the kind of health impacts he was referring to,
Dr. Gunathilake said, "Styrene is carcinogenic (cancer causing) and has
a neurotoxin (affecting the nerves) effect. It dissolves the fat tissues
and causes chromosome damage. Benzene is also carcinogenic. However, its
toxic effects depend on the level of exposure to it. The important thing
to remember is that all plastics and polythene are petroleum based
products, which contain these two deadly toxins. The impact they have on
one's health in the short term or long term will as I mentioned earlier,
depend on the level of exposure and the duration of such exposure to
Rigifoam plates, cups
In addition to rigifoam boxes, he said using rigifoam plates and cups
also pose similar health risks. Thus, serving snacks hot from the fire
or even sandwiches on a polystyrene plate can cause the styrene and
benzene to leach into the food. Similarly serving a coke, soda, or any
other drink (apart from water) and ice cream, fruit salad, watalappan
and similar desserts in a plastic cup, he said can also cause these two
chemicals to interact with adverse effects.
When asked about the solution, he said the country needs proper
standards to evaluate the quality of plastic containers that have begun
invading society. "There must be an authority from the State to also
monitor their use," he said explaining that as a Poisons Information
Unit they can only create awareness of the dangers of using these toxic
agents for serving food.
So are re there polystyrene boxes that are safe to use?
Chief Public Health Food Inspector, CMC, Lal Kumara responded with a
resounding "Yes," explaining that there are food grade rigifoam boxes
available to all food vendors and that the vendors are expected to only
use these boxes He said food grade rigifoam boxes are easily
recognisable, as they are much smaller and come with a plastic spoon and
fork. They are also degradable unlike the bigger rigifoam boxes and thus
Apart from the toxic impacts they have on human health, these little
white boxes are also one of the most common objects or urban and marine
debris. Environmentalists see them as one of the biggest environmental
polluters of the environment. An eminent environmentalist said they had
studies to prove how these materials contribute to green house effects
and global warming, especially when these boxes are burnt along with
other garbage, as they are not biodegradable and require very high
consumption of heat when incinerated. "When scattered on roadsides they
get blown into waterways and block drains and add to marine debris," he
CMC Public health Head Dr. Ruwan Wijeyamuni pointed out another
danger posed by these containers. "When allowed to lie uncleared in
private gardens or on the roads, they also act as excellent breeding
grounds for the dengue carrying vector.
This is one reason why despite our on-going intervention programmes
such as indoor spraying of homes in high risk areas, fogging,
encouraging people to use nets and wear long sleeved clothes, the number
of suspected cases of dengue islandwide has now reached an unacceptable
8506 suspected cases," he said, adding that although the on-going
mosquito control programmes would be carried out in identified high risk
areas, they need public co-operation to wipe out this menace
When questioned from the Central Environment Authority (CEA) the
foremost authority for removal of solid waste, what it was doing to get
rid of the menace, Director Waste Management, Ajith Weerasundara said
they were considering submitting a proposal banning the use of
Polystyrene boxes islandwide, as they have become a public nuisance and
a health hazard.
"It takes over 100 years for one box to degrade. This means their
toxic effects will remain in the ground for a long period of time
affecting our future citizen's health as well," he said.
He also pointed out that the CEA had gazetted a ban on the use of
plastics and polythene in 2006 preventing traders from using plastics
below 20 microns in thickness. "To implement this regulation, which up
to now most food vendors are ignoring, we have begun initiating legal
action against all violators. At present we have found 21 food vendors
violating the law and they will be taken to court," he said, urging food
vendors to refrain from the practice of using discarded pesticide and
petroleum barrels to store food. "The chemicals they contained can never
be completely washed out and will invariably leach into the food stored
such as rice and lentils, causing permanent health problems," he warned.