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Sunday, 28 February 2016





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Government Gazette

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 food vendors.

The 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.

Toxic agents

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

Health impacts

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 them".

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 eco friendly.


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 added.


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.


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