04/02/2013 11:26 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Swallowing the Risk of Cancer

The other night, my husband and I settled into what we like to think of as "our" table in our favorite San Francisco restaurant. The lighting is appropriately dim, the tables are all mahogany wood, and an international designer provided the décor. The celebrity chef/owner sometimes shows up and asks customers about the food. We marvel at how different he looks off-camera.

Yet, for all of it's embarrassing pretention, the San Francisco food scene seems to have a good heart. Much of the food here is farm-to-table, and it is easy to eat organic. We have local ingredients, meat without hormones or antibiotics and an emphasis on healthy eating. What could there be to complain about?

Our table, also known as the chef's table, allows us a direct view of the cooks. It is a bit like a seat at the bar, but also like watching a cooking show on television. The other night, as I was watching the chefs conduct their coordinated chaos and speculating on the years of training that must go into being a chef, I noticed something I had not seen before. Dozens of plastic bottles, containing oils, dressings, and sauces sat sweltering under the heat lamps of this world-class kitchen.

Keep in mind that the San Francisco obsession with food is also accompanied by extreme anxiety. We enjoy our food, but do so ambivalently. We worry a lot about cancer, like many in the middle class. We, however, are a small bay away from Marin County, which has the highest breast cancer rates in the country, if not the world. To mitigate our anxiety about getting cancer, we obsess about how many vegetables to eat a day. We panic about preservatives. We like whole foods and slow foods. Michael Pollan is our hero.

In this context, warm plastic bottles containing the sauces that could be used in my dish was jarring, to say the least. As a relatively-educated layperson, I have heard that warm plastics can leech toxins into foods. Suddenly, my relaxation was interrupted by the worry that my salad dressing might unfairly assault my immune system!

There are reports that some women exposed to industrial plastics have higher rates of breast cancer. Time has also reported the potential risks of toxins in plastics.

There is also data for those of us that worry about plastics that have been exposed to heat. Science Daily reports the release of a potentially toxic chemical (Bisphenol A) when plastic bottles are filled with warm liquids.

Yet, major cancer institutions in both the United States and the United Kingdom minimize the risk of cancer from plastics.

Granted, I might be part of the worried-well, which frets too much about cancer. Yet, since there is data that plastics are toxic, should I be content to wonder if plastics, especially those that contain heated ingredients, are negatively contributing to my health?

Of course, we can't eliminate exposure to many potential toxins. The chemicals within plastics are everywhere. Where do you draw the line? Should we vow to never drink from a plastic water bottle again? How do you know if you are being paranoid? It may hurt, but it is also fair to accuse the upper-middle classes of having excess time to worry about environmental toxins. People who are worried about what to eat and how to pay for a meal often have little time to worry about how food is prepared.

San Francisco is a town of paradoxes. Restaurants that serve organic produce provide containers that are not compostable. Farm-to-table often means the exploitation of immigrant workers who harvest the vegetables I so enjoy. Plastic bottles are heated up to the same degree as the food I eat. If I complain, I sound like a neurotic foodie who expects perfection. If I don't voice concern, I may be colluding with the status quo.

Since there is data that plastics are toxic, we should try to minimize their use. Of course, we could wait until there is enough data for some big cancer organization to sign on regarding how plastics contain enough contaminants to cause malignancies. It has taken decades for the government and related big organizations to increase public awareness regarding several different toxins and health risks. It may be better, however, to just diminish the wish that our government always knows what is safe for us.

I may not give up eating at my favorite restaurant, but at least I know objectively that I am taking a health risk when I do so.

For more by Tamara McClintock Greenberg, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

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