Are single-use containers harmful to humans? S. Korea’s food and drug authority put them to the test

Posted on : 2021-09-30 17:59 KST Modified on : 2021-09-30 17:59 KST
South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety tested 49 container types with hot water and determined they were not releasing harmful chemicals upon being heated, but advised against microwaving single-use containers
(Getty Image Bank)
(Getty Image Bank)

Plastic foam ramen cups and other single-use containers are understood to contain volatile compounds that are harmful to the human body.

But when an experiment was run on the volume of compounds released from those containers, the compounds were either not detected or were detected at low levels (just 2.2% of the limit regarded as safe for human exposure) in most of the containers tested. Bisphenol A — commonly known as BPA — and phthalates, which are regarded as environmental hormones, did not appear at all because of the nature of the polystyrene that’s used to make those containers.

On Wednesday, the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) published findings from a study on the elution of five volatile substances in 49 types of polystyrene-based containers and packaging, including plastic foam ramen cups and other disposable cups and lids.

Volatile substances are organic compounds with a low boiling point that causes them to volatilize easily. Effects of exposure include irritation of the eyes, skin, and mucous membrane, along with vomiting and diarrhea.

The volatile substances examined in the study included styrene, toluene, ethylbenzene, isopropylbenzene (cumene), and n-propylbenzene.

Styrene, ethylbenzene, and isopropylbenzene are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as Group 2B carcinogens in humans.

Group 2B is a category that includes substances where there are limited data on carcinogenic effects in humans or insufficient evidence of carcinogenic effects in animals. Examples include mobile phone electromagnetic waves, coffee and pickled vegetables.

The MFDS explained that there had been “ongoing concerns that volatile substances and other harmful materials could be produced from polystyrene, which is chiefly used for disposable containers.”

The ministry also said it had carried out the study “due to the increasing use of disposable plastics as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to higher demand for packaged and delivered foods.”

From left to right, a single-use ramen cup, a take-out container, cup, and yogurt cup (provided by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety)
From left to right, a single-use ramen cup, a take-out container, cup, and yogurt cup (provided by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety)

The MFDS study showed trace amounts of styrene in eight of the 49 container types. But in terms of harmfulness, they were found to be at safe levels, amounting to 2.2% of the safety threshold for human exposure.

The study focused on 30 ramen cups, nine types of disposable containers, five types of disposable cups, and five types of disposable lids. A substance is considered harmful when it is present at a level of 100% of the safety threshold for human exposure or higher.

The ministry explained, “The experimental methods for this study analyzed the elution of volatile substances under harsher conditions than ordinary use in order to detect the level of volatile substance elution during the actual preparation and consumption process, with elution solvents that reflected the characteristics of the food used in the containers.”

In the case of ramen cups, no volatile substances were detected when the cups were eluted for 30 minutes in water at 70 C (158 F). Volatile substances were also not found when 100 C (212 F) was left in the cups for 30 minutes to simulate an actual consumption scenario.

Known environmental hormones such as BPA and phthalates were found not to be used due to the characteristics of polystyrene materials.

The MFDS advised, “While there should not be any issues with placing boiling water into a polystyrene container, adding hot freshly fried foods, such as cutlets or dumplings, or heating this type of container in a microwave could cause changes or holes in them, so we should take care not to place hot, greasy foods in them or to heat them in the microwave.”

By Kwon Ji-dam, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to []

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles