Melamine in Dishware: A Cause For Concern?

by , 02/19/09

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Melamine has been all over the news lately, thanks to the melamine pet-food poisoning scandal, and the poisoning of babies in China due to melamine-tainted infant formula. But did you realize that this toxic substance, melamine, the one that is killing babies in China, is also a major component in a large number of plastic dishware including plates, bowls and cups? If this stuff is toxic enough to kill babies and pets in trace quantities, should we be concerned about it in our dishware? We thought this was worthy of an investigation. After some sleuthing around, here’s what we found out…

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There is a Cookie Nesting blog post that begins, “Every mom knows the virtues of melamine–it’s durable, it’s easy to clean, and it’s cheap enough to buy in bulk.” Yet recently, a few green moms have been approaching melamine’s virtuosity with skepticism, keeping in mind the notion that if something’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not entirely true… at least not in the shadow of the recent international food scare.

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Regardless of what the news out of China (or Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and a small town in Connecticut) might have you believing, melamine, an organic compound with chemical formula C3H6N6, is an element of low toxicity. It is when this element is combined with cyanuric acid that serious problems occur (as evidenced in the pet food scare that preceded the milk foods scare). But that does not mean there is no concern for its presence everyday household products. When combined with formaldehyde and baked at high temperature, the shatterproof compound created can be molded into almost any shape – such as the brightly colored plates featured throughout this post.

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Whereas the melamine which was subject to international news reports in 2008 was ingested over a long period of time (some babies in China were unwittingly fed melamine tainted formula for up to 8 months), according to most reports we are to believe that the trace elements that enter our foods today, when high temperatures affect melamine-made utensils, is about as toxic as common table salt. Melamine cutlery, cookware, plates and bowls have all been deemed “safe” by various authorities. And the FDA has even gone as far as declaring melamine safe in baby formula… leading to the collective “Yeah, right!” expressed around the blogosphere.

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But recently at least one testing agency, The State Professional Inspection Agency in Mongolia of all places, has issued a warning: “With repeated use, the [melamine] plastic dishware develops cracks and scratches. And it can ‘bleed’ melamine into food,” said an agency inspector in a press statement. Yet this recent announcement shouldn’t scare you into throwing out your cute set of alien superhero plates. A safe way to handle your melamine products is to never heat them. That means no cooking with melamine utensils or microwaving with melamine plates or bowls. It’s also a good idea to try and keep them scratch free. If you do decide to trash your melamine stash, Urban Outfitters (who got a Treehugger nod) has equally adorable colors and prints available in very breakable porcelain (for big kids, below) and bambu is always a hip, earth-friendly choice.

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Yet who is to tell? This year’s earthenware and wood may be last year’s hard plastic or the leaching water bottles of 2007. Apparently this most recent scare is only the tip of the toxins-in-food-products iceberg. In an AFP article, Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO food safety expert, said, “There are billions of chemical products that normally should not be found in food — it is therefore impossible to fix a limit for all the chemicals.” Which means that with more rigorous testing and the increased awareness of today’s consumers, we can, sadly, expect more chemical scares.

Plates featured:
PoppyArts
FrenchBull
Poketo
ThreeHipChicks

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5 Responses to “Melamine in Dishware: A Cause For Concern?”

  1. Alicia@TheSoftLanding says:

    I really appreciate your level-headed approach to the issues of different forms of melamine and the current research concerning leaching from melamine resin.

    The whole melamine-in-milk scare has served to confuse SO many people. Many parents (and even some media sources) immediately assumed that the singular form of organic melamine was synonymous with melamine resin. We received so many anxious inquiries that I addressed it in a blog post explaining the differences between the two forms of melamine, including cyanuric acid in combination with melamine used in the contaminated milk which created a very toxic combination for babies.

    As you mentioned, there are small bits of evidence pointing to the leaching of chemicals from melamine dinnerware – especially when used improperly in the microwave – but we’re still waiting for more hard evidence. Personally, I’ve decided to avoid using melamine dinnerware in our house because we have older kids who make their own food and tend to forget and use them in the microwave.

    I love your blog and look forward to each article with great anticipation!

  2. Michele de Jesus says:

    Been wondering about this. Thanks for this post!

  3. jenamacisaac says:

    As a follower of the Montessori, philosophy we use the same dishes with our children that we use ourselves, i.e. breakable. My three year old has been using glass cups and dishes for 1.5 years and so far has only broken one glass. My 9mo old has just started using the dishes. We teach her to drink via a glass shot glass which we hold for her for now. She loves it and is doing very well. I do have one “safe” plastic Sippy cup for traveling with, but she does not like it as well. So I guess what I am saying is for parents who are concerned about melamine in their children’s dishes, just switch to glass or porcelain and teach your kids to eat on “grown up” dishes. We use an inexpensive set just in case we break.

  4. Rebecca says:

    However it turns out, for me this is simple – if I can choose something safer with zero extra expenditure (of anything) I’m going to. So, the melamine is gone. If I have two plates side by side and one is in question, it doesn’t make sense to me to choose that which is potentially problematic.

    On a practical note – for the 2 year old we use some great vintage finds from the thrift store (inexpensive) or safe plastic plates that we don’t use in the microwave. So far using “real” dishes we’ve only lost one bowl.

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