Melamine in China’s Milk vs. Melamine in Dinnerware

Let me start by saying that this is not an article about whether melamine dinnerware is safe.  We personally don't use melamine dishes, because we're waiting for more scientific evidence that toxic chemicals (like formaldehyde) don't migrate from them into our food.

Rather, this is an exploration of the difference between the organic compound melamine, and melamine in combination with other materials.  I'm hearing a lot of confusion about the melamine found in China's milk, and since I've already been researching the topic, I thought this would be a great way to begin a series on melamine in general.

What is Melamine?

According to the FDA, Wikipedia and Wise Geek, melamine is an organic-based chemical substance.  It can be combined with formaldehyde to create a hard plastic (or resin) used in utensils, plates, laminates (such as Formica countertops), and in fire retardant fabric.  A special form of melamine resin is melamine foam, which is used mainly as an insulating and soundproofing material and more recently as a cleaning abrasive.

Wikipedia also points out that melamine resin utensils and bowls are not microwave safe, as they absorb the microwave radiation and heat up.  The dishes are also not recyclable.

What Type of Melamine Was Found in Milk?

I found an amazing discussion about this on the Prudence, M.D. blog.  Tess explains that it was most likely melamine combined with cyanuric acid added to the milk:

The high nitrogen level (66% of nitrogen mass) in melamine gives it analytical characteristics of protein molecules and thus, when milk gets checked for protein levels, it registers a higher level than the actual.  However, it’s not solely melamine that is causing the renal failure in those who have consumed the contaminated dairy products.  Most often cyanuric acid appears as an impurity of melamine.

[Cyanuric acid] can exist in low levels in human food (because of animals fed with feeds containing melamine and its structural analogs) but not necessarily due to adulteration.  If taken at higher levels with melamine, due to chronic and continuous use, the combination of melamine and cyanuric acid could produce melamine cyanurate, forming spore-like crystals in aqueous solutions and can block the renal tubules, causing renal damage and failure, since melamine is not metabolized and is eliminated through the urinary tract.

This was the issue with the pet food scandal in 2007.  The Scientific American gives a comparative description of both scenarios:

What does melamine do in the body? A Cornell veterinarian told us last year that melamine is not considered to be “a very toxic compound,” but can result in kidney stones and kidney failure especially in small animals. Investigators found crystals made up of melamine and its byproducts in the urine and kidneys of in the dogs and cats that were poisoned last year. Because it formed crystals in the body and was not fully dissolved in urine, the melamine gathered in the kidney, gunking up the organ and forming stones. The pets that died suffered acute kidney failure.  Now the same thing appears to be happening to China's tiny tots.

Very interesting.  At least now we can see the fundamental difference between the singular form of melamine and melamine resin.  I'll keep you updated as new research on melamine resin becomes available.

Must read articles on Melamine:

What is Melamine? A Crash Course by Safe Mama

Melamine: in Formula, In Candy, in Kid's Dishes by Healthy Child Healthy World

Got Melamine? 53,000 Chinese Children Did – in Their Milk by Tree Hugger

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12 Responses to Melamine in China’s Milk vs. Melamine in Dinnerware

  1. anna October 8, 2008 at 4:28 am #

    thank you so much for the helpful info. looking forward to learning more about the plates/bowls made from melamine.

  2. anna October 7, 2008 at 10:28 pm #

    thank you so much for the helpful info. looking forward to learning more about the plates/bowls made from melamine.

  3. Sommer October 8, 2008 at 4:53 am #

    Fascinating What are melamine dishes and how do I know if my child is using one? Does it say melamine on it?

  4. Bee October 8, 2008 at 7:27 am #

    We use melamine dishes at home (like kids’ plates) and I admit I didn’t think much of it since we don’t use them in the microwave and mostly for snacks so there is no heat involved, but I am starting to wonder if it is safe anyway!… 🙁

    This is all so confusing to me to learn everyday there is something else that is not safe or that hasn’t been tested thoroughly enough…

    We live in a weird world, we don’t take care of our planets and his habitants, it’s sad!

    Thanks for all your info!! 😀

  5. Alessandra October 8, 2008 at 12:42 pm #

    thank you for this information. I am glad we do not use melamine dishes at our home today , however I remember them from my childhood. They were very popular around the 70’s I think, lots of designs and colours.

    Sommer, I am not sure if it says melamine on them but they are very easy to recognise, it’s like a hard plastic.

    Thank you again! will continue following your blog!

  6. Alessandra October 8, 2008 at 6:42 am #

    thank you for this information. I am glad we do not use melamine dishes at our home today , however I remember them from my childhood. They were very popular around the 70’s I think, lots of designs and colours.

    Sommer, I am not sure if it says melamine on them but they are very easy to recognise, it’s like a hard plastic.

    Thank you again! will continue following your blog!

  7. Sommer October 8, 2008 at 10:53 am #

    Fascinating What are melamine dishes and how do I know if my child is using one? Does it say melamine on it?

  8. Bee October 8, 2008 at 1:27 pm #

    We use melamine dishes at home (like kids’ plates) and I admit I didn’t think much of it since we don’t use them in the microwave and mostly for snacks so there is no heat involved, but I am starting to wonder if it is safe anyway!… 🙁

    This is all so confusing to me to learn everyday there is something else that is not safe or that hasn’t been tested thoroughly enough…

    We live in a weird world, we don’t take care of our planets and his habitants, it’s sad!

    Thanks for all your info!! 😀

  9. Brain Teaser October 29, 2008 at 2:49 am #

    We also use melamine wares and base on what I have read, they are safe to use as long as it is not overheated, as in a microwave or on a stove and it should never be used in the oven. Melamine breaks down under heating.

    And to the company who used melamine for their products shame on you and I hope you learned your lessons well.

  10. Brain Teaser October 29, 2008 at 8:49 am #

    We also use melamine wares and base on what I have read, they are safe to use as long as it is not overheated, as in a microwave or on a stove and it should never be used in the oven. Melamine breaks down under heating.

    And to the company who used melamine for their products shame on you and I hope you learned your lessons well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What is melamine anyway? « Light Green Mamas - October 10, 2008

    […] The Soft Landing – Melamine in China’s Milk vs. Melamine in Dinnerware […]

  2. Safer Kids Cup and Dish Guide « The Soft Landing Blog - October 10, 2008

    […] Safe Mama did some digging and found out that all of their children’s dinnerware is BPA free. Their cups are made from polypropylene (#5) which is what we would recommend from their products for older kids. Their plates and bowls are made from melamine, which we wouldn’t recommend (even though it is BPA and PVC free). Read more about it here. […]

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