Food Protection Connection: Water Bottle Safety: What to Believe
(reprinted from Dietary Manager, September 2007)
Each Food Protection Connection column is approved for 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.
We used to call them “rumors”—disturbing stories that pass from person to person and sometimes become distorted along the way. But today, the stories fly faster than ever, reaching billions of Internet users through email messages and websites. Many are sensational, warning of danger; most are false. That’s how Internet based rumors have earned names like “urban legends” or “Netlore”. Once a story hits an email box, many users forward it to others…and warn everyone they know.
Take, for example, some of the recent Netlore surrounding the safety of plastic water bottles. Current Netlore contends that re-using plastic water bottles releases cancer-causing chemicals into water. A similar story warns against leaving a water bottle in a hot car, as this causes breast cancer. Another story claims that freezing a water bottle releases dioxins. Yet another warns that microwaving food in plastic causes cancer. One of the messages circulating is falsely labeled as a “cancer update from Johns Hopkins”.
Are plastics a source of chemical contamination in foods? What are the food safety concerns here? Below are excerpts from some Netlore messages, along with the real “skinny” from reputable sources.
Netlore—Water Bottle Can’t Be Re-Used:
“Many are unaware of poisoning caused by re-using plastic water bottles....Not a good idea. In a nutshell, the plastic (called polyethylene terephthalate or PET) used in these bottles contains a potentially carcinogenic element (called diethylhydroxylamine or DEHA)… The bottles are safe for one-time use only….”
The Skinny: The American Cancer Society refutes this claim, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that DEHA “cannot reasonably be anticipated to cause” cancer, gene mutations, birth defects, or toxicity to the immune body systems, or other serious irreversible chronic health effects.
Netlore—Water Bottle in Hot Car:
“My husband has a friend whose mother recently got diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctor told her women should not drink bottled water that has been left in a car. The doctor said that the heat and plastic of the bottle have certain chemicals that can lead to breast cancer…. This information is the kind we need to know and just might save us!!!....”
The Skinny: Same as above.
Netlore—Don’t Freeze Water Bottle:
“Johns Hopkins has recently sent this out in their newsletter….Don’t freeze your plastic water bottles as this releases dioxins….”
The Skinny: Rolf Halden, PhD, PE of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health comments, “This is an urban legend. There are no dioxins in plastics. In addition, freezing actually works against the release of chemicals.” The FDA position: “The FDA has seen no evidence that plastic containers or films contain dioxins and know of no reason why they would.” Adds the American Chemistry Council, “The claim that plastic water bottles will release dioxins when frozen is entirely unfounded…. dioxins are a family of compounds that are produced by combustion at high temperatures. They can only be formed during combustion at temperatures typically above 700 degrees Fahrenheit; they cannot be formed at room temperature or in freezing temperatures.”
Netlore—Microwaving in Plastic Causes Cancer:
“On Channel 2 this morning… Dr. Edward Fujimoto was talking about dioxins and how and they are bad for us. He said that we should not be heating our food in the microwave using plastic containers…. … Pass this along to your family and friends.”
The Skinny: According to the FDA, “It is true that substances used to make plastics can leach into food. But as part of the approval process, the FDA considers the amount of a substance expected to migrate into food and the toxicological concerns….The agency has assessed migration levels and found the levels to be well within the margin of safety….”
Containers for food packages intended to be prepared in the microwave are for one-time use and should be discarded after use, says the FDA. (This would apply to a pre-packaged microwaveable meal, for example.) The American Chemistry Council advises, “To play it safe, look for plastics that are labeled for microwave use and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Note that plastics like butter tubs and deli containers are designed for cold food storage and are not intended for reheating.” Microwave-safe plastic wraps are fine, and should be placed loosely over food, according to the FDA.
Sorting it Out
Food safety is a top concern of American consumers. This makes us vulnerable to alarms and scams. To stay grounded in food safety science and protect yourself from hoaxes, here are some tips:
- Don’t implement food safety advice you receive by email without verifying the facts. See Netlore: Telltale Signs.
- Don’t forward emails that are suspect.
- Check a website that exposes urban legends, such as Snopes. com or Scambusters.org to identify hoaxes.
- If in doubt, seek the facts from reliable websites that present the expertise of trained and qualified scientists. See Where to Get the Facts.
Remember that the foodservice sanitation practices presented in the FDA Food Code and your local health code are based on valid science. Meanwhile, sensational stories have a mass appeal and spread quickly over the Internet. A CDM, CFPP has the training and professional expertise to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to food safety scares. Common sense and reliable sources can be the guide.
Netlore: Telltale Signs
How do you know if an email warning is a hoax? The American Chemistry
Council advises watching out for these red flags:
- The email includes a phrase like “pass this on” or “tell everyone you know.”
- The email makes you feel concerned or angry (playing on your fears), suggesting a dire threat.
- The original sender is not identified.
- The email uses vague references as to the source of information.
- The timing is vague (mentioning “recently” or “last week”).
- The message uses ALL CAPS and excessive exclamation points!!!!!!!!
- The message claims, “This is not a hoax.”
Where to Get the Facts
Websites that expose urban legends:
US government agencies:
Recognized educational institutions:
- Harvard Health: www.health.harvard.edu
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews
- Mayo Clinic: www.mayoclinic.com
Reputable industry organizations:
- American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org
- American Chemistry Council Mythbuster website: www.plasticsmythbuster.org
By Sue Grossbauer