everyday's tidbits

Friday, December 30, 2005

"Melamine" dinnerware

When we ate in this “quasi-cafe” near my office long after the work time was up, one of my friends gave comment about the melamine plates on which the food was served:
“Tau kada, jar piring melamin ni mengandung formalin jar.”
“Jar di banjar ni ada empat kah yang kada mengandung formalin, termasuk merek P****.”
while holding the plates with food on it high over the table to see the brand name under the plate. I was ready to catch the food spilled over the brim, which unfortunately never happened.
The brand name is not P****, but none of us felt any concern about it.
“Alah, gak ngaruh lagi. Dikit banar kandungannya. Usia kita ni pendek. Beapa memikirakan hal-hal remeh temeh kaya itu.”
“Hi ih, kena tuha hanyar menyesal, kanker lah, kena.”
“Makanya, aku memilih untuk mati muda.”

And then the conversation’s going on to other unrelated topics.

(Free translation:
“Do you know, they said that these melamine plates contained formaline?”
“Is that so?”
“Yepp, here in Banjar, there were 4 brands that contained no formalin, one of which was *****.”
“Nah, no matter. The formaline content is negligible. Our life is too short to be concerned about such unimportant things.”
“You would be sorry when you’re old, suffered with cancer.”
“That’s why I choose to die young.”)

These excitements about formalin in food or things related to food has been going on for years. When I was still in my college days (in ’90s), in my bachelor degree thesis days, that is, “formalin in food”, “cyclamate in beverages”, “borax in meatballs”, etc, had popped up as one the possibilities for being a thesis topic.

When you heard the word “formalin”, the first thing came into mind is the gagging smell of death. Formalin or formaldehyde in 10-40% solution, is used as desinfectant, and preservative for biological specimens, dead human bodies, mostly, for the sake of medical students to understand Anatomy, har-de-har-har-har. My days of anatomy student, anatomy assistant and anatomy lecturer in those not-so-old days were filled with the vapor of this chemical compound. In fact, I was fainted the first time of my long-hours-of-standing anatomy laboratory practice.

Apart of that, formaldehyde is also used in industry to make a lot of daily found things like plywood adhesives, carpet, paint, soap,
shampoo, toothpaste, nail lacquer, fertilizer, and also explosives. The formaldehyde is slowly released over time, and at concentrations above 0.1 mg/kg in air, inhaled formaldehyde will irritate the eyes and mucous membranes, causing headache, nausea, watery eyes, sore throat, and difficulty in breathing. Formalin in gas form is inhaled daily via the exhaust of motor vehicles and cigarettes. Formaldehyde combined with melamine (melamine-formaldehyde) is also used in the industry of decorative dinnerwares, like plates, spoons, glasses, etc. Melamine-formaldehyde wares are desirable because of its durability (not easily broken) and lightness. Urea-formaldehyde is another combination, usually used for adhesive.

It was agreed that formalin is a probable human carcinogen. In small amount, several studies suggested that formalin has no carcinogenic effect, but in large concentrations and longer exposure, it was believed to cause cancer.

Nowadays, in Banjarmasin, and another towns in Indonesia, I think, decorative melamine dinnerwares were sold in a very cheap price. You can get 3 for 10.000 rupiahs, especially in Pasar Tungging (I would give a saying about this relatively new market specimen later). When I was in still a student in Jogja, I was even tempted to buy them. Cute little bowls, nice patterns, cheap price, peculiar shapes, what more do you ask?

Turns out that these cheap “melamine” wares were not melamine-formaldehyde, it was actually urea-formaldehyde, which contained higher formaldehyde than melamine forms. Differ with melamine-formaldehyde which is more stable, When exposed to hot water, the urea-formaldehyde wares would release formaldehyde (depolymerization). So, if you make your Indomie (instant noodle) in that bowl, and then sip (mmm, yummy!) the water, you would also sip the formaldehyde successfully (yuck!). The higher the formaldehyde content, the more dangerous.

In Indonesia, formalin is also used as preservatives in food industry, such as tahu (the original tofu), noodle (the traditionally-made), and bakso (meatballs). To think that I ate a lot of them all for all my life *sigh*. BPOM (a government bureau who is responsible for the safety of food and beverages circulated in the community) has conducted surveys on this, but not much measures taken. Or maybe the home industry workers just don’t give it a damn: Who cares if some people got some cancer later in their life? With or without cancer, they would die anyway, so they’d better have something big for a reason to die.

All you have to do is just being careful.
Besides, I expect to die young :)




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