I can eat all the melted plastic I want and STILL look great
May 12, 2011 9:29 AM   Subscribe

So I was dumping some defrosted chicken from one of those clear plastic bags into a pan, and accidentally melted a bit from the end of the bag. I'm assuming I'll be fine, but I was wondering, what exactly happens when you eat melted plastic? If nothing happens if you eat a little, what about a LOT? Hormonal problems, cellular mutation, clots in your digestive tract, or what? Or is the answer still nothing?
posted by Busoni to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It passes through you. I mean, based on the amount of plastic you are referring to. I suppose if you ate a couple of pounds of it, it could have some negative effect on you.

Also, different plastics have different chemical makeups, so large quantities may have different effects on you.
posted by dfriedman at 9:31 AM on May 12, 2011

Yes, I'm asking because I'm paranoid and OCD about these things, but I figured this would give me a better sense of what the real dangers, if any, are. If you also have some sense of the proportions involved, like how ingesting something like a square inch of melted plastic is no worse than consuming five beers in a given night, that would also be helpful. (Because five beers probably isn't great, but it's not something I would shy away from.)
posted by Busoni at 9:32 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the recent concern about plastics being in food comes from excessive microwave use, not random ingestion. IIRC, there have been many studies that indicate that using plastic in the microwave leads to plastic molecules being forced into your food, and such molecules have led to, yes, hormonal problems and other bodily issues. For example, some research has indicated that excessive microwave use by expectant mothers may be contributing to high populations of children with autism in certain communities. I think I remember a news briefing on it that suggested that eating foods that have these plastic molecules in them leads to a build up of plastic in your body and bloodstream and that certain plastics may be mimicking estrogen molecules and causing problems in both men and women. Hopefully a more knowledgeable MeFite can link you to studies both for and against this obviously controversial topic.

You're probably just going to pass the plastic through you, no harm, no foul. It MIGHT be able to perforate your bowel if it were large/irregularly shaped/sharp, but I doubt it.
posted by patronuscharms at 9:41 AM on May 12, 2011

I'm sure you've ingested much worse and you're still around. You know scientists say it's not the poison but the dose. I'm sure you're going to be fine.

There are so many other things you could be worrying about... nuclear radiation drifting from Japan, definitely get ya before that little piece of plastic.
posted by PaulBGoode at 9:49 AM on May 12, 2011

A few months ago I prepared dinner with this silicone spatula. When I was doing the dishes I noticed the spatula had been reduced to a little nub. Further investigation revealed a small piece of plastic in the pot. Yes, the secret ingredient was spatula. Much (and I mean much) worse harm would have come to me from eating a bowl of ice cream. Also, OXO replaced the spatula!
posted by Room 641-A at 10:18 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well I would have to say eating a little bit of polyethylene would be less bad than swallowing your gum, which is made with synthetic materials nowadays. These plastics are designed with the intention that they are durable and resistant to chemical corrosion, hence why they take so long to decompose.

From wikipedia - Pure plastics generally have low toxicity in their finished state, and will pass through the digestive system with no ill effect (other than mechanical damage or obstruction). Your polyethylene bags are pretty pure plastic, no real additives, and are composed of elements that aren't bad for you anyway. Accidentally eating a bit of styrofoam or any other plastic you would associate with food-use would not be reason to freak out over its potential toxic effects.

The hazardousness of the plastic depends on the kind of plastic, and most of the hazard comes from heating it up - which can cause the plastic to degrade, decompose, and burn, which can release hazardous fumes like free radicals and toxic gases.

Generally the softer plastics can melt with little degradation (like polyethylene) and that's why they're easily recyclable. A bit of melted PE isn't any more hazardous than the PE you started with, for all intents and purposes. Accidentally eating a bit of burnt PE would be about as hazardous as eating a piece of burnt food. Burning PE would release gases like methane and ethane. Polyethylene itself isn't a bad plastic, after all - you eat paraffin wax which is pretty close to the same structure as polyethylene - all based around -(CH2)- monomer units, the building blocks that link together as chains.

The hard plastics are usually the ones that you have more to worry about when burning them, they can release very harmful fumes. PVC and polystyrene can release toxic gases when heated, like chlorine and benzene gas.

tl;dr - A bit of polyethylene, even if it's been previously melted or singed, isn't going to harm you if you eat it because of chemical reasons. If anything, consuming plastic with sharp edges (causing internal cuts) or large quantities that end up causing physical blockages inside you, that's what is bad.
posted by lizbunny at 11:05 AM on May 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

I ate melted styrofoam once - restaurant leftovers were in the microwave for too long and I didn't realize the container had melted into the food until after I'd eaten about half my meal. For about a week, I burped a lot, and the burps tasted like styrofoam, but it didn't seem to have any permanent effect. (This was about 10 years ago, so if something really bad was going to happen, I think it would have by now.)
posted by shiny blue object at 11:14 AM on May 12, 2011

As an environmental risk assessor who spends all day with toxicological information and exposure doses, I can't favorite lizbunny hard enough. A one-time low dose of a relatively inert plastic poses less risk than any number of daily choices. I don't have any hard numbers for you, but I'm guessing second-hand smoke for not very long would be a lot worse, for instance.
posted by ldthomps at 12:23 PM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

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