The majority of the fast food samples a team of researchers took from six restaurants included phthalates, a class of chemicals that have previously been linked to endocrine system disturbance as well as possible problems during pregnancy and fertility.
The study, which was written up in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, included information on 64 food items that were tested as well as the plastic gloves that restaurant staff members wore. Following testing, scientists discovered two types of phthalates: DnBP, which was present in 81% of the samples, and DEHP, which was present in 70% of the goods. Burritos and hamburgers were among the meat-based foods with the highest concentration.
Phthalates, also known as phthalate esters, are chemicals typically used to increase the durability of plastics, however they can also be used for other purposes. Although researchers did not look into how these chemicals were getting into the food, they suggested it may be residue from the plastic gloves used by cooks and possibly from plastic packaging as well, such as wrappers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these chemicals are used in hundreds of products, including vinyl flooring, lubricating oils, and personal-care items like shampoo and soap.
According to study co-author Ami Zota, ScD, MS at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health, testing for non-phthalate compounds used as substitutes also revealed that they were present in a sizable number of samples. However, she claims that phthalates are still present at significant amounts despite the usage of substitutes.
"Our preliminary findings suggest ortho-phthalates remain ubiquitous, and replacement plasticizers may be abundant in fast food meals," she notes. "Diet is the primary exposure for these chemicals, and food items sold by fast-food chains are heavily processed, packaged, and handled. Therefore, individuals who frequently consume fast food meals are especially vulnerable to exposure."
However, these chemicals have been linked to health issues in previous research, particularly those involving the endocrine system. At the moment, the Food and Drug Administration has no threshold on the quantity of phthalates in food, and the amounts discovered in the most recent research are below the EPA's health-protective thresholds. For instance, a 2017 Toxicology Reports study on single-serve coffee products found that these products may contain high quantities of phthalates that may adversely disrupt hormonal function, including fertility and fetal development. These experts also mentioned that exposure to these endocrine disruptors by mothers can have an impact on infants.
Health equity issues are another problem, in accordance with Zota.
For instance, she notes that fast food is more prevalent in predominantly Black regions, which puts those residents at a higher risk of exposure.
Phthalates can be ingested through fast food packaging and plastic gloves, but they can also be found in a variety of personal care items, according to Lily Adelzadeh, MD, a dermatologist at the Berman Skin Institute in San Francisco. She claims that the perfumes in these things are a particular example of this.
"Fragrance smells nice in skincare products,” she notes. “However, I think it’s a good idea to stay away from any products with artificial fragrances because they are the prime culprit if you’re having a bad reaction such as rashes, dry skin, and itching, as well as other reactions like headaches.”
An advocacy group called the Environmental Working Group advises the following measures to reduce phthalate exposure in addition to avoiding items that list "fragrance" among their ingredients:
It could be tough to totally eliminate phthalates because they are present in so many items, but restricting choices like fast food and highly perfumed personal care products may help you reduce your exposure.
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