Making school lunches can be a bit of a nightmare. Every mother wants to send their children off to school with a healthy lunch (even if occasionally they succumb to outside pressure and include unhealthy snacks such as potato chips). Lots of children are now known to have reactions to certain foods and many schools impose limitations on the inclusion of certain foods, and of course this limits choices. There is lots of advice and suggestions around about school lunches and it is very easy to find ideas for healthy lunch boxes.
But in addition to what the children actually eat there is also the question of how to package it. With the new school year beginning this week and thousands of children heading off to school each day with lunches packed into plastic boxes and wrapped tightly in plastic cling film now is again the right time to revisit the question of the dangers on the kids health of chemicals leaching out of the plastic and into the food.
The issue is not whether chemicals will leach from the packaging into the food, but how much
Over the last few years the media has widely covered the impact on babies of Bisphenol A, or BPA as it is commonly known, used in the production of babies bottles with the result that there are now BPA-free baby bot
tles available. But not much is said about the danger of other plastics, even though research has made the dangers well known.
Plastics deserve their bad name! There have been numerous studies showing the adverse effects of plastics – in particular PVC, polycarbonate and polystyrene which contain the chemicals DEHP, Bisphenol A (BPA) and nonylphenol, all xeno-oestrogens.
The problem with xeno-oestrogens, such as BPA, is that they alter hormones. They have been linked to breast and testicular cancer, infertility, early puberty, reproductive delays, obesity and diabetes, as well as being found to lower the ability of your immune system to respond to inflammation. BPA has even been found to be linked to behavioural and emotional problems in pre-schoolers. The danger from BPA is even greater for babies and children because they seem to be sensitive to even tiny amounts. Boys in particular are susceptible to the hormone altering effects.
These toxic chemicals not only occur in plastics. They are present across our environment and are found everywhere from the lining of metal food cans, to the detergents in cleaning products, dental sealants and composites, pesticides and even baby bottles.
Let’s break it down a bit
- Many chemicals found in plastics alter hormones in the body and lead to illness of the reproductive system and other diseases.
- Harmful chemicals are found in all manner of plastic products and are more likely to be there than not. Some plastics are not so dangerous
- There is lots of evidence of BPA leaching from the epoxy lining of cans holding food and beverage. Even cans certified “organic” leach BPA.
- Chemicals leach out of plastics faster when they are in contact with fatty, salty or acidic foods like meat, milk or tomatoes.
- Chemicals leach out faster when the plastic is heated. NEVER heat food or drinks in plastic, and be very wary of unintentional heating like water bottles left in a warm car.
- Some plastics are safer than others. The number of the type of plastic will be on the bottom of the container. The ones to avoid are #1 (PET or PETE polyethylene terephthalate), #3 (PVC polyvinyl chloride), #6 (PS polystyrene), #7 (all other types of plastics). Some labeled with #7 are safe and some unsafe but you can’t be sure which it is. One of the unsafe ones is polycarbonate (PC) which is used in baby bottles.
What plastics are safer?
Some safer plastics to use are:
#2 HDPE (high density polyethylene) – a hard plastic used for many food containers as well as some toys,
shopping bags packaging, plus lots more. It is more stable than most other plastics and does not leach out endocrine disrupting chemicals. It is also easy to recycle.
#4 LDPE (low density polyethylene) – a soft plastic used in bags, squeezable bottles, cling films. It is safer but not recyclable, unlike #2
#5 Polypropylene (PP) – used for rigid containers like ice-cream containers, plus many other items. It is thought to be free from known hazards but again, is not recyclable.
These do not give you a huge choice and also need to be balanced up with the damage that non-recyclable plastics do to our environment.
It is really safer and more responsible to avoid using plastic .
Simple ways to make changes
- Use paper bags for school lunches – safe and recyclable
- School lunch can be wrapped in greaseproof paper (at your supermarket) or one of the re-useable wraps now available. Look for them at Onya or 4MyEarth
- Store food in glass, unglazed ceramics and stainless steel which are the safest containers for food storage. .
- Get a good quality stainless steel drink bottle for you and your children and avoid plastic water bottles or juice boxes
- Avoid lunch boxes made from PVC (#3) and polycarbonate (#7) as food left sitting in these could be harming your kids
- Never heat food or liquids in plastic containers (not even if they are made of safer plastics)
- Take your own containers for take-away foods and avoid having hot food sitting in plastic containers
- Don’t use cling wrap in the microwave – harmful chemicals leach out
- If you need to store food and drinks in plastic then choose one of the safer ones
- Only use plastics if they have a recycling symbol on the bottom so you know it is not harmful, or else you could call the manufacturer to find out what type of plastic it is
- Glass is the only safe option for baby bottles
- Don’t store foods like meat, tomato-based meals or cheese wrapped in cling wrap or any plastic.
- Avoid canned foods wherever you can – look for glass instead.
If you do make the change away from plastic containers and food wraps, not only will you be protecting your family’s health you will also be making a significant contribution towards a cleaner planet, where vast quantities of plastics in landfill and our oceans pose a huge problem.