Are the New Sharples Plates and Mugs Safe?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

A stack of the new Sharples bowls. Photo by Jiuxing June Xie.

Sharples’s recent switch to a new set of plates, mugs, and bowls containing the compound melamine has prompted student concerns about possible health issues caused by the dinnerware. A set of studies has shown possible leaching of melamine polymer and formaldehyde from this dinnerware when exposed to high temperatures and acidities. Students are not supposed to microwave these new plates and mugs; this is indicated on the Sharples microwaves. A stack of china plates is kept next to the microwave so students may safely heat up their food.

The verdict on melamine’s safety in non-microwave settings is less clear. A recent report from the National Toxicology Program acknowledges that some leaching has happened under “conditions that simulate hot acidic food,” though at a smaller level compared to established incidents where melamine has caused widespread health problems. The FDA says that trace amounts of melamine in food are generally harmless.

When asked about this situation, Director of Dining Services Linda McDougall said, “From all I have read is that the melamine can begin to break down if it is used in a high voltage microwave or exposed to very high heat (such as placed in an oven).” McDougall said the plates come from a company called GET Enterprises and are used at many “hospitals, colleges and other businesses as well as in many households.” She added that the process of dishwashing should not affect the plates, according to “other colleges that use the same dishes.”

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