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Does eating food in plastic containers cause different types of cancer?

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Claim: A picture appeared recently on both WhatsApp and Facebook claiming that American Doctors Association gave out a warning that eating food in plastic causes 52 types of cancer.

There is insufficient evidence to substantiate this claim, even though some researchers believe that plastic, especially when heated, may be injurious to human health.

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Recently, a picture went viral on social media, including on WhatsApp and Facebook, containing claims that eating hot food, drinking tea in plastic cups, and microwaving foodstuff in plastic bags will cause cancer. The image on social media contained a message attributing a claim to the American Doctors Association and linked plastic to 52 types of cancer. It also contained warnings and advised the message be shared to others.

The image as seen on Whatsapp

Alongside warnings, the message had a list of a few of the causes of cancer by the American Doctors Association.

In the first instance, a search by the researcher shows that the image is not a new one, it has merely been re-circulated recently repeatedly. It appeared on Nairaland in 2016, and many other places including Facebook.

Screenshot of the image as seen on Facebook on the page ‘Inspiration’, July 13, 2018 

Verifying the American Doctors Association

This researcher combed the internet to confirm whether the image, and its content truly emanated from the source to which it was attributed, the American Doctors association. The Association of American Doctors has a dormant Facebook account. According to information on its Facebook account, it was created on 29 March 2015, it has 581 followers, but its last activity (a self-generated content) is a profile picture posted on December 22, 2016.

The search on Google did not yield any organization by the name, giving the hint that it does not exist. Rather, what is available includes Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, and American Medical Association, but no American Doctors Association. In other words, the source or authority to which the cancer claim was attributed is non-existent, and therefore fake. 

Verifying the Claim: What Causes Cancer?

Various studies say there is no single cause of cancer. Many scientists or groups, like Stanford HealthCare, maintain that it is the interaction or aggregation of many factors that produces cancer. In some broad forms, they say that the factors may include genetic, environmental, or constitutional characteristics of the individual.

But they list some of the cancer risk factors to include, lifestyle (such as smoking, high-fat diet, working with toxic chemicals); family history (inheritance, genetics); some genetic disorders, exposure to certain viruses and environmental stimuli. They believe also that some forms of exposure to chemotherapy and radiation can predispose to cancer.

In 2019, the Cancer Research Institute stated that a number of behavioral factors can lead to genetic mutations and, as a result, lead to the development of cancer.

Such behavioral factors include, tobacco, tanning (excessive exposure to ultraviolet light), diet (red and processed meats), alcohol, unsafe sex (leading to viral infection) and inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis or obesity. In addition, the substances referred to as carcinogens have been reported to be implicated in cancer. They include chemical carcinogen exposure, hormonal drugs, immune-suppressing drugs taken by transplant recipients, and radioactive materials.

Does Plastic Cause Cancer?

Some studies have found that certain chemicals are released from plastic into our food and beverages, and have been linked to some metabolic disorders including obesity and reduced fertility. When heat is involved, the release of the chemicals can be faster especially when using the microwave, but other experts insist no sufficient research has been carried out to make this claim evident; ‘so far there’s no research that answers how much amount actually gets into our body’.

Cancer myths and risks by the courtesy of Cancer Research UK

However, some studies strongly believe that at certain exposure levels, some of the chemicals in plastic beverage containers, some disposable plates, and toiletry bottles, such as bisphenol A (BPA) may cause cancer in people. BPA is a weak synthetic estrogen found in many rigid plastic products, food and formula can linings, dental sealants, and on the shiny side of paper cashier receipts (to stabilize the ink). They insist, however, that if you must use plastic, they must be plastic with recycling symbol 2, 4, and 5 which with recycling symbol 7 are safe, as long as they also have a leaf symbol on them.

Researchers conclude that even though some studies have found certain chemicals in plastics can end up in things we eat and drink, the levels are low and within considerable range safe for humans. They insist that there is no good evidence that people can get cancer from using plastics. ‘So, doing things like drinking from plastic bottles or using plastic containers and food bags won’t increase your risk of cancer’, they insist.

‘No controlled study has been done to show that plastic can cause cancer. But some observational studies have found that it does have harmful chemicals.”

According to Cancer Research UK, even if a little quantity of chemical enters the food, their probability of being dangerous is very low. And, of a truth, that using plastic in microwaving food causes cancer has basically been enlisted as a ‘rumor’ circulating about the disease.

It is almost a consensus that no research has been able to establish that plastic causes cancer. In fact, this is the submission of Dr Jimoh Mutiu a clinical oncologist, at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, who told this researcher that there is no scientific basis in any part of the world to show that eating food in plastic causes cancer. 

He said, “We work with evidence. The only thing that has been proven is processed food or smoked food that are carcinogens. Even in smoked food, we always advise cancer patients to eat smoked food in moderation. Smoking has been proven to be a risk factor for the majority of cancer, same as alcohol. [But] there is no scientific proof to support eating in plastic.”

While responding to claims that making moin moin (Nigerian steamed bean pudding) in nylon could cause cancer, he stated that this is also within the realm of speculation. For him, ‘all these things need to be based on evidence. People can just assume anything. If there is no scientific background, science will not agree with it.’ He concluded that even if any study is carried out, the average result of the study will still be insufficient to generalise that it is universal.

Conclusion

While there is evidence that plastic contains a measure of chemicals that scientists say are injurious to human health when used in packaging or processing food and drinks, there is a strong belief that plastic cannot be sufficiently and exclusively linked to cancer. Thus, there is insufficient evidence to substantiate this claim that eating hot food, drinking tea in plastic cups, and microwaving food in plastic bags will cause cancer.

The researcher produced this fact-check per Splash FM 105.5, Ibadan with the Dubawa 2021 fellowship partnership, to facilitate the ethos of truth in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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