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Melamine: Is it what's for dinner?


Remember melamine?  That was the substance found in the baby formula that resulted in over 54,000 children becoming sick and some dying and was also the substance that was found to be at fault in the 2007 pet food scandal.  (The pet food scandal entered the domestic food chain as chickens and pigs fed melamine ended up in the American food chain.) 

What is Melamine?

Melamine is a chemical (often derived from coal) that  is used to make plastics and pesticides. It turns out that it is routinely added to animal feed all over China and has also been found in fertilizers in the U.S.  In recent years foods such as wheat, corn, and rice gluten; vegetable proteins; ammomunium bicarbonate, and milk from China have all been found tainted with the chemical.

In the case of the tainted baby formula, the melamine ended up in the milk that was used to make the baby formula—and chocolate and other goods—because it made the milk appear, falsely, to have more protein than it did.  Melamine alone is considered of very low toxicity, but when it is combined with cyanuric acid problems occur: largely in the form of renal damage and kidney failure.  Cyanuric acid, in turn, can end up in human food in low levels from animals fed melamine.  It is the synergestic effect of the two that seems to have led to the sickness and death of the Chinese infants and the pets.

You have melamine in your house.

And your kid is eating off of it.  Melamine plates, bowls, and cups dominate the kids market.  A cute image of Dora the Explorer looking at you off that hard, non-breakable plate?  It’s probably melamine. I had a plate that I loved from childhood that came from Australia and had a kangaroo on it. My daughter still eats off it when we go visit Grandma (or used to before I researched this article). 

Melamine tableware does indeed contain melamine.  It also contains formaldehyde.  The two make a hard polymer that is widely used in North America: often in kids tableware. There is research  (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16901863) (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16019835) that shows that melamine tableware leaches both melamine and formaldehyde into food and beverages throughout the life of the product.  However, the levels were found to not violate safety limits in most cases. Where the standards were surpassed it was the formaldehyde that was the offender. (Formaldehyde has been linked to birth and developmental effects, respiratory illness, and cancers).

Fruit juice, dishwashing, and heating were linked with increased levels of leaching. It is particularly bad to microwave melamine products as they absorb heat. 

What’s a parent to do? It isn’t realistic in our household to have a tableware product that we can’t dishwash, use with hot foods, or allow any acidic foods to touch.  My beloved childhood kangaroo plate I’m keeping (possibly on a shelf, or maybe just as part of the play kitchen set), but the rest will go. 

Learn more:

The W.H.O. has taken the lead on preliminary study on melamine and cyanuric acid

Prudence, M.D.

The softer landing   

Healthy Child, Healthy World

U.S. National Library of Medicine Nationa Institutes of Health Public Medicine Database: Survey of migration of melamine and formaldehyde into food, Migration of formaldehyde and melamine

Written by Manda Aufochs Gillespie: The Green Mama. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock



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