How dangerous are plastics for storing and reheating food? I remember hearing that plastic containers can release carcinogenic materials when reheating food in the microwave. I also heard that plastics can release “plasticizers” into food even when cold. What studies exist about these dangers? — CVL, Fairfax, VA
While I’m not up to date on actual studies, I would think that most food storage plastics introduce very little contamination into the foods stored in them. We have become so concerned as a society about toxic chemicals in recent years that we tend to overreact much of the time. While the actual polymer molecules in most plastics are relatively inert and harmless, plastics inevitably contain some small molecules, either by accident or by design, that work their way into food. Even if some of these molecules are toxic or carcinogenic, the quantities involved are almost certainly insignificant. Modern chemical testing can detect incredibly small quantities of various chemicals and we panic every time we find them in our environment. But the societal cost of banning or avoiding all contact with or use of these chemicals may have hidden costs that are worse than the problem we’re trying to solve. Moreover, I’ll bet that many of the foods put in plastic containers are greater health hazards than the containers themselves.