Here in Accra, thin plastic bags and styrofoam packs are the preferred containers for take-away food. Whether it is rice, porridge, stew, or banku, roadside food joints and chop bars serve it up hot in this cheap, convenient packaging for thousands of customers every day.
Many of these businesses store the piping hot food in plastic ice chests or reheat it on plastic plates in microwaves to ensure that it is hot when customers buy it.
Bags, microwaves, and ice chests all make it much easier to run a small-time food kiosk, container, or restaurant, but they have a downside as well: when heated, these plastic materials can release damaging chemicals into the food, which can cause diners serious medical complications down the road.
Dr. Andre Kwasi-Kumah, a general practitioner at the Eden Family Hospital, has advised that the harmful agents are not only released at high temperatures; they can also seep into fatty, salty, or acidic foods at room temperature.
He explained that some of these chemicals cause “disruptions in human reproduction which can lead to infertility.”
Furthermore, they are known to “predispose the one eating the food to conditions like diabetes and hypertension.”
He added that if children habitually eat food containing these chemicals, they “may develop these illnesses earlier.”
He suspects that further research will establish a causal link between the increased use of plastic packaging for food and the increasingly early onset of diseases like diabetes in many Ghanaians.
Certain medical researchers have also identified a range of hormone-related developmental issues that can arise in children exposed to these chemicals.
Other researchers anticipate a link between some of these chemicals and cancer. They have observed this link in rats and in some humans as well, but because of the small sample size of human subjects and other difficulties studying carcinogens, the medical community is not yet prepared to state conclusively that these chemicals cause cancer.
Realistically, eating hot food from a plastic bag one time will probably have no effect on a person's health, but those who make a habit out of it may be putting themselves at risk.
There is no set rule on how many times a person can eat food that has touched hot plastic without getting sick. The safest solution is to avoid eating this food whenever possible.
Fortunately, there are ways around this plastic problem. Microwaving food on ceramic or glass plates and serving hot food in paper-based packages or on ceramic or wooden plates will eliminate the risk of ingesting these chemicals.
The price of a ceramic plate may higher than that of a plastic plate, but compared to the long-term financial and emotional costs associated with conditions like diabetes and infertility, it's a small price to pay.