Dear EarthTalk: Are the plastic tiers on food steamers safe for food and for re-heating? Some indicate they are made from #7 plastic. I am very interested in buying a steamer, but not if they are unsafe. What's the best way to go?--Jim Lichlyter, Jr., Valley Center, KS
While you may never know for sure whether the plastic parts in a food steamer will contribute to health problems down the road, why gamble? Plastic marked with a #7 recycling symbol--signifying mixed sources (polycarbonate) or otherwise hard-to-classify plastics (such as acrylonitrile styrene or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)--is considered one of the riskiest in terms of chemical exposure. Polycarbonates are the most common types of plastic in items marked #7. And any of these three "feedstocks" just mentioned could contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in widespread use since the 1930s to harden plastic.
Researchers have found that exposure to BPA, a known "endocrine disruptor" that can mimic the body's natural hormones, can lead to neurological and reproductive problems. As a result, public health advocates recommend not using containers marked with #7 for storing, heating or serving food/drinks so as to minimize the amount of BPA in our bloodstreams. Keeping BPA out of our bodies is an uphill battle: A recent study found that 96 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. have at least trace amounts of BPA in their systems already (and probably the rest of us do as well).
In response to increased consumer awareness about the potential risks of exposure to BPA, many bottle and container makers are now marketing versions of their plastic products that are BPA-free--and the trend has extended to food steamers, with several now available in BPA-free versions, including Oster's 5712, Black & Decker's HS1050, and Big & Fast's Plastic Electric Food Steamer. Buyers beware: Even some BPA-free steamers have non-stick surface made from PTFE...