Melamine is a flame-retardant used to make adhesives, industrial coatings, plates, cooking utensils, and other plastic products. When melamine is mixed with resins it has fire retardant properties due to its release of nitrogen gas when burned or charred.
Melamine has been used in China for years as an additive in feedstock and milk because it can make diluted or poor quality material appear to be higher in protein content.
In 2008, melamine was found in infant formula in China where 300,000 babies were sickened and 6 infant deaths were reported. Further investigation found that more milk products including yogurt, milk and ice cream were tainted with the deadly chemical melamine.
Melamine in Soup Bowls
According to a study published in JAMA, melamine found in bowls, plates and other tableware may leach into our food and make its way into our bodies, raising risks for health problems.
Taiwanese researchers enlisted a group of 12 healthy men and women who ate noodle soup in either a bowl made of ceramic or one made of melamine. They found measurable levels of the chemical additive in the urine of those eating out of the melamine bowl.
“The amount of melamine released into food and beverages from melamine tableware varies by brand, so the results of this study of one brand may not be generalized to other brands,” wrote the study’s authors, led by Dr. Chia-Fang Wu, a researcher at Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan.
“Although the clinical significance of what levels of urinary melamine concentration has not yet been established, the consequences of long-term melamine exposure still should be of concern,” they concluded.
Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., told CBS News melamine may leach out of tableware if the food is especially acidic, tableware is damaged and if the products are used when serving or reheating hot foods.
Spaeth said the study did not look at safety and toxicity of the product. However, the study did suggest people eating from the products are getting exposed to the chemical, he said.
“It’s a pretty strong link to see high levels after that,” said Spaeth. “”It’s reasonable to have some concerns of what exposure could be happening, and the impact it could have on human health.”
Spaeth said melamine exposure is often restricted to certain types of containers or tableware that can be avoided, unlike other chemicals that enter our bodies through food, such as BPA (bisphenol A) — which can no longer be used in manufacturing baby bottles or sippy cups.
The FDA warns more exposure to melamine is possible when highly acidic foods are heated in microwave ovens. “Only ceramic or other cookware which specifies that the cookware is microwave-safe should be used,” according to the FDA. “The food may then be served on melamine-based tableware.”