Mongolia

Toxic Chemicals Hide in Popular Food Containers

Many Mongolians repurpose plastic containers to store food. This simple act can have lethal consequences.

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Toxic Chemicals Hide in Popular Food Containers

Odonchimeg Batsukh, GPJ Mongolia

Otgonbayar Ivanov uses a lathe to carve wood into a bowl. He avoids plastic containers because they can contain toxins.

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BULGAN, ARKHANGAI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — Otgonbayar Ivanov enters his workshop with a smile, cradling a burl of wood from the nearby forest. The 50-year-old was once a cattle herder. But since 2019 he has focused on transforming knotted wood like this into plates, utensils and storage containers, which he uses and sells.

He began creating items from wood to avoid using plastic containers, many of which are not safe for food storage. “The use of plastic containers is out of control,” he says.

In Mongolia, families and individuals often reuse plastic containers that once held oil, pesticides or other toxic chemicals. Because these containers are inexpensive and widely available, they have become convenient storage for water, milk and food. A 2015 survey of nearly 300 households, conducted by Mongolia’s Toxicology Research Association and published on the website of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry, found 90% of respondents used between three and four unsafe plastic containers to store food.

These containers may contain hazardous chemicals such as lead, formaldehyde and bisphenol A, which can leach into water, milk and food and accumulate in the human body, according to the ministry, leading to cancer and other medical conditions.

“Daily consumption of water containing these hazardous chemicals increases the risk of suffering from cancer,” says Unursaikhan Surenjav, a professor of chemistry and secretary of the National Center for Public Health.

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Odonchimeg Batsukh, GPJ Mongolia

Mongolians commonly store water, milk and food in plastic containers that once held hazardous chemicals.

Otgonbayar’s desire to stop using non-food safe containers stems from personal experience: His brother-in-law died of stomach cancer in 2008. “He was a driver and used plastic containers of motor oil after cleaning them thoroughly inside and out,” Otgonbayar says. “I think his suffering from stomach cancer was caused by the harm of plastic containers.”

Until recently, Mongolia lacked an organized way to dispose of hazardous waste. In 2018, the Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism began issuing licenses for the collection, storage, transportation, recycling and disposal of hazardous materials, including plastic containers.

There are now 14 entities operating nationwide to recycle hazardous materials, two of which are recycling plants that handle hazardous plastic containers, says Oyun Adiya, an expert at the ministry’s Environment and Natural Resources Management Department. The government hopes to increase recycling capacity in the coming years, with a goal to reduce the amount of hazardous waste dumped into the environment by 40% by 2030.

But even now, the recycling plants that handle hazardous plastic containers are not operating at full capacity. Darambazar Batdorj, the head of one of the plants, says his facility is operating at only 50% capacity and is running out of material to recycle, because companies have not been delivering their waste to them. The Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism requires companies to send hazardous plastic containers to the recycling plants, but they must pay a fee to do so. To avoid this added cost, many companies end up giving or selling them to the public.

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Odonchimeg Batsukh, GPJ Mongolia

Otgonbayar Ivanov admires his handiwork.

The containers are light, durable, easily available and inexpensive, making them attractive to Mongolians who aren’t aware of the health risks.

“Our citizens keep accepting plastic containers,” Unursaikhan says, “because they do not know about their harm and impact very well.”

Officials have sought to raise awareness. The Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry, together with other government agencies, launched a national program in 2017 to reduce the use of chemically hazardous containers and packages for household purposes.

The program included a media campaign about the adverse health effects of repurposed plastic containers, says Tungalag Davaa, a senior specialist at the ministry’s Food Production Policy Implementation and Coordination Department. Cafeterias in general education schools in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, have stopped using non-food safe containers, as have state schools, kindergartens and hospitals in 10 provinces.

Yet plastic containers that contain toxic chemicals are still widely used. Tungalag says that the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry has proposed a trade-in program for citizens to replace non-food safe containers with government-subsidized food storage options. But funding for the initiative hasn’t been approved.

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Odonchimeg Batsukh, GPJ Mongolia

Plastic containers are sold widely in Mongolia.

It’s not enough to inform citizens of the health risks associated with non-food safe containers — it’s also necessary to replace these containers, Tungalag says. The government can mandate changes to schools and other government entities, but it’s not so simple to demand the same from individuals.

“Families with low incomes make choices out of economic reasons instead of considering health,” Tungalag says.

Oyunaa Chimed has fetched drinking water in an old oil container for the past 10 years.

“I heard about the harms and effects of this container on television, which said that even if it did not cause diseases today, it would do so after five or 10 years,” Oyunaa says. “Nevertheless, food-safe plastic containers are expensive.”

Odonchimeg Batsukh is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mongolia. Contact her on Twitter and Facebook or via email.


TRANSLATION NOTE

Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel, GPJ, translated this article from Mongolian.