There was a woman I worked with who steadfastly brought lunches to the office made up of whole grains, lean protein and fresh veggies. They were always packed into an old Country Crock tub, and every day she would crack the lid, chuck the whole thing in the microwave and go do something else while her dinner “cooked.” And I’d stand there thinking: Should I say something? What would I say, exactly? Do I email? Leave an anonymous note on the microwave? Should I find her at her desk? Where is her desk?
Then I’d go back to my computer and Google “don’t microwave plastic” and come up with tons of websites saying that nuking microwave-safe plastic is just fine. That, it seems, is why they call it microwave-safe plastic.
But the Country Crock lunch gal wasn’t the only one who made me want to issue cautionary (and seemingly alarmist) messages. There was also the IT guy who ferried Lean Cuisine frozen dinners from home and, when it was time to eat, would jauntily grab a knife from the break-room block and puncture the top of the box with a half-dozen quick jabs — bam! bam! bam! — and toss it in the microwave.
“That’s not good for you,” I’d say, as he’d remove the mini-feast and saw through the top of the box with his knife, Mad Max style. The paper would be crimped, brittle and burned on the edges.
“Nothing’s good for you, and we’re all gonna die,” he’d reassure me, tossing the box in the trash.
I think this macho show of fearlessness was directed more at the cute redhead in marketing than at me — as by now, I had clearly fallen into the role of Disapproving Society, directly opposing his Sexy Rebel. All I needed was a cane to shake as he roared off on his shiny motorcycle: “That’s not safe, James Dean!”
Of course, his was an inarguable riposte: Nothing’s good for you, and we’re all going to die. It’s true: Even ceaselessly exercising herbivores in a plastic-free environment, such as the mighty hadrosaur, bit the proverbial dust. So, yes, not dying is an unrealistic long-term strategy. Still, not microwaving plastics and coated papers and the sundry packaging that a lot of processed food comes in just seems like good sense to me.
Here’s why: Plastic and plastic-lined things that people like to microwave, like sherbet tubs, frozen-food trays and plastic storage containers, are essentially unknown entities. Obviously, they can’t snuff you out in the next five minutes. They’re not made of cyanide. Studies suggest, however, that the radio waves generated by microwaves agitate the plastic’s molecules and can lead to the release of dangerous carcinogens and hormone imitators. And those hormone imitators are especially concerning, because they inspire estrogenic activity, which is linked to health issues such as stroke, cancer and thrombosis.
Last year, a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives chose 455 common food-holding products, such as water bottles and deli takeout containers, and subjected them to “real world use,” like microwaving and washing in the dishwasher. Ninety-five percent of the products tested positive for chemicals that stimulated estrogenic activity. Even some items advertised as BPA-free.
In August, major media outlets told the masses about a study published in the American Journal of Pathology that found that the chemical ingredient commonly used to help conjure the flavor and aroma of microwave popcorn proved to be a respiratory hazard. It also altered the gene expression of lab rats, a finding that caused a scientist to coin the term “popcorn workers’ lung.” For more on potential microwaving dangers, visit ELmag.com/insidemicrowave.
None of this data is conclusive enough to force the powers-that-be to ban plastic or keep microwaves from being used in homes and restaurants. And yet, if we elect to keep microwaving plastic until we have absolute scientific proof that it’s really, really bad — what if that proof doesn’t come for another 20 years?
Those 20 years might be a blip on the timeline of the hadrosaur, but I was planning on them being some of the best years of my life. And, let’s face it, scientific proof often comes as a sad sort of hindsight. I say this as a food writer who knows a little too much about 19th-century candy and ancient Roman wine, both of which contained copious amounts of lead.
During Greco-Roman and Medieval times, wine was often sweetened with “sugar of lead,” or lead acetate. The Romans called it sapa, which sounds adorable. Lead and many other heavy metals were considered so harmless, in fact, that in 1880, as the Handbook of Food Toxicology reports, 46 percent of the candy sampled in Boston tested positive for one toxic compound or another. A separate 1820 analysis of 100 candy samples found that 59 contained lead chromate, 12 were made with red lead, four contained lead carbonate and another six contained vermilion — a mercury compound.
My point is that one of the tough things about being human is that you just don’t know what you don’t know. For a thousand years, lead was considered harmless. And maybe that’s why I have a tough time being 100 percent confident about the reassurances at Snopes.com, the rumor-debunking website, which recently posted the following overarching conclusion: “Research has proved that microwaving foods in plastic containers releases cancer-causing agents into the foods. Status: False!”
It’s also why I never know what to say in the office lunchroom when people are microwaving what looks to me like absolutely crazy-toxic stuff. I could start a rant by saying, “Look, I know a few things about ancient Roman wine adulteration,” but that’s not the way to make friends. I thought about trying a gentler tack: “Hey, I know you’re totally overwhelmed today, and you have neither spare time nor spare money, but drop everything and go out and find some fresh produce and a hot plate to boil water.” But that’s not going to work either.
So there you have it: I am sometimes paralyzed by my acute knowledge of the things I don’t know. Because truth be told, I don’t have definitive, incontrovertible proof that you ought not to chuck modern-day packaged products into the microwave willy-nilly, simply assuming that nothing bad will happen to you over the long haul.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder: What happens when you re-warm your coffee in the microwave in one of those big paper cups with the plastic lining that all the coffee chains use? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that it seems like a bad idea to me. Because what do the microwaves do to that plastic, and by extension to us? Again, we don’t know. That worries me. But I don’t want to be a paranoid, nosy scold who alienates her coworkers with vague warnings of microwave-related doom.
So the trick, it seems, is to figure out a positive way to express my worry, and also my misgivings about my worry, and then let people make up their own minds.
Maybe I’ll start by taping up this column on the microwave at work.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer