Melamine plates and bowls are handy, inexpensive and nearly impossible to break, which is good for families with kids, dogs and clumsy adults.
But studies have found that heat and acid can cause the melamine to seep into food, possibly causing harmful health effects. In a new study, researchers say that substituting stainless steel for melamine when serving hot food can markedly reduce exposure.
Besides dishware, melamine is used in flooring, whiteboards and other everyday items. It's generally thought that it's only when it is ingested that health effects become a concern but a 2008 incident in China illustrated how serious the problems can be when melamine is used improperly. More than 300,000 people were sickened and 50,000 babies hospitalized by the effects of melamine that was used to boost the protein content of milk powder.
In 2007, pet food sold in the U.S. was found to be contaminated with melamine and it was found in food given to hogs in California, leading to fears that it would wind up in pork chops and other food bound for human consumption.
Some research has suggested that even small amounts of melamine could increase the risk of urinary stones or kidney problems, and one major source of the material is tableware.
In a study reported in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology, Ming-Tsang Wu and colleagues at a Taiwan university wanted to see what kinds of practices could lower people's exposure.
The researchers first measured melamine levels in the urine of study subjects and then gave them stainless steel boxes and silverware for their hot meals. The melamine levels in their urine decreased after using the containers by 41 to 92 percent.
The wide range could be due to subjects' exposure to other uncontrolled sources of the substance, the researchers say.