“Disposable Chopsticks” refer to single-use chopsticks, which are prepared from bamboo or wood and do not require further washing and cleaning before use. In Hong Kong, many restaurants do provide disposable chopsticks to their customers. However, disposable chopsticks have once been a public health concern as they might be associated with several harmful substances.
In year 2013, Taiwan’s Department of Public Health (TaoYuan) found excessive levels of sulphur dioxide in some disposable chopsticks (Remarks: legal tolerance level: < 500 ppm). It is well known that excessive sulphur dioxide can damage the human respiratory system.
During the manufacturing processes of disposable chopsticks, some factories may use sulphur dioxide to fumigate the chopsticks, in order to kill those associated pests and molds. When people use chopsticks bleached with sulphur dioxide to lead foods to their mouths, excessive sulphur dioxide may irritate the respiratory tract, leading to cough and asthma.
Moreover, some factories may use sulfite to prevent disposable chopsticks from becoming yellow, black and moldy, so as to maintain a good appearance. Normally speaking, our body can transform sulfite into sulfate which will then be discharged along with urine. However, some people may be allergic to sulphite and over-ingestion of sulphite can cause breathing difficulties, diarrhea and vomiting.
Other Potential Hazardous Substances
In year 2005, the Consumers’ Foundation in Chinese Taipei found that the packaging materials of some disposable chopsticks contained lead at a level over 100 ppm. Since the wrapping material was directly in touch with the disposable chopsticks, it was worried that the toxic heavy metal might contaminate the chopsticks and then being ingested into the human body. In addition, inks and fluorescent materials present in the packaging materials of disposable chopsticks might also migrate to the chopsticks, in turn affecting the human health. However, the study did not show any evidences that those toxic substances were present in the disposable chopsticks samples.
Establish Acceptance Criteria for Disposable Chopsticks in Hong Kong and Enhance Surveillance
To date, Hong Kong does not have a hygiene standard for disposable chopsticks like the one adopted in Taiwan:
1) Detrimental color change, noxious odour or taste, contamination, molds, pests, foreign substances and fiber loss in disposable chopsticks are NOT ALLOWED.
2) Sulphur dioxide level of disposable chopsticks must be BELOW 500 ppm.
3) Hydrogen peroxide and biphenyls must NOT be DETECTED in disposable chopsticks.
Although it has been reported that Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department had once tested the disposable tableware including bamboo and wood chopsticks, but details of the sampling and test results are not publicly announced by the government. In order to protect citizens against health threats, I think the Centre for Food Safety or the Consumer Council need to investigate the safety issues of all disposable chopsticks currently sold in Hong Kong, and then publicize the results as well as standards used for judging whether the disposable chopsticks are safe or not.
Safety Tips for the Public
1) Avoid using disposable chopsticks which is too white or smells acidic. Immersing the chopsticks in hot water for 3 to 5 minutes before use can help to reduce the residual level of sulphur dioxide.
2) Ensure the packaging is intact without any damage, and there is no sign of mold.
3) Bring your own chopsticks for your own safety. This also helps to reduce carbon footprint and protect the environment.