Pallet Wars: Wood vs. Plastic for Food Safety

Decabromine is a flame retardant that's been used in products for decades and, according to Scholnick and Moore, it is used in plastic pallets to adhere to fire safety burn tests. In recent years, environmental groups have calculated an increased amount of decabromine in the environment.

As a result, by December 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency forced large producers to phase out the chemical by 2013.

"Decabromine is the most widely used fire retardant flame retardant in the world. It's in the carpet you're sitting one, it in the handset on your phone," said Moore, who added that "it's been in use for 40 years, safely.

"It is, however, a persistent chemical meaning once you make it, it doesn't go away," Moore said.

And as Scholnick pointed out, the chemical can become hazardous to firefighters if the pallets do end up burning.

However, Moore contends that wooden pallets are made with unsavory chemicals too, including a formaldehyde compound.

Accusations of Chemical Hazards in Pallets

"The thing about those people making that claim about decabromine, is that their pallets use composite blocks. Those composite blocks are made out of sawdust held together by formaldehyde," he said.

This December, iGPS also publicized a separate issue with chemicals and pallets -- a Tylenol recall.

More than 60 million bottles of Tylenol pills and other over the counter products were recalled after a number of people reported being sickened after swallowing moldy-smelling pills, which originated from Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Healthcare LLC, in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's investigations linked the sickness to wooden pallets and trace amounts of a chemical called 2,4,6-tribromoanisole.

"The source of 2,4,6-tribromoanisole is believed to be the breakdown of a chemical used to treat wooden pallets that transport and store packaging materials," the FDA wrote in a statement on its Web site. "The health effects of this compound have not been well studied, and to date all of the observed events reported to McNeil were temporary and non-serious."

Scholnick said 2,4,6-tribromoanisole is not permitted for use in the United States, but suspected the pallets treated with the chemical came from South America.

International Goods All Shipped on Pallets

With the number of goods moved on pallets every moment, there's no doubt that a safety issue with pallets could become a crisis in little time.

However, microbiologists and produce safety experts say the pallet industry makers have a lot more work to do to prove that any type of pallet is a top health concern.

Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said more attention should be paid to how surfaces are maintained and cleaned, not the material they are made of.

"Most of our information comes from the cutting board wars," said Gerba. "It's kind of like, 'take your pick.' Both materials have advantages and disadvantages, and it really comes out to how well they are being cleaned and maintained."

On Germs: Wood Versus Plastic

While wood is more porous and may absorb bacteria, Gerba pointed out that it is also more likely to keep the bacteria in one place, "then they [bacteria] can't come out so easily."

Wood has natural antimicrobial chemicals, while plastic is easier to clean, according to Gerba. New plastic is less likely to trap bacteria, but once it has nicks and scratches, Gerba said plastic can becomes a host.

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