Researchers found that people who eat the most fast food have up to
39 percent more of two industrial chemicals called phthalates in
their blood than those who eat less, or no fast food at all.
“We found a significant association suggesting that the more fast
food someone eats, the higher the levels of two particular
phthalates known to be used in food packaging and food contact
material,” said lead author Ami R. Zota of the department of
environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School
of Public Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Phthalates make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible
and are used in vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating
oils and automotive plastics. People can be exposed by eating and
drinking foods and beverages that have been in contact with plastic
containers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
The human health effects of phthalate exposure are not known,
according to the CDC, but they have been shown to affect the
reproductive systems of lab animals.
“Phthalates are of concern because animal and epidemiology studies
have linked exposure to a range of adverse health outcomes, from
toxicity to developing male reproductive systems, neurodevelopmental
issues, miscarriage, and preterm birth,” said Justin Colacino of the
University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor, who was
not part of the new study.
Phthalates can mimic hormones in the body, and those in this study
are also suspected to be carcinogens, Colacino told Reuters Health
The study team used data from more than 8,000 participants in the
National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys between 2003 and
2010, including their self-reported fast food intake, the type of
fast food they ate and the fat content of their food over the
previous 24 hours. The surveys also included objective measurements
of chemicals in urine samples.
As people’s fast food intake increased, so did evidence of phthalate
exposure in their urine, according to the results in Environmental
There was no link between fast food consumption and urinary levels
of bisphenol A (BPA), one of three plasticizing chemicals the
But people who got more than a third of their total calories from
fast food over the previous day had 24 percent more of one chemical,
di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), and 39 percent more of a second
one, diisononyl phthalate (DINP), than those who did not eat any
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These chemical exposures seemed to be tied specifically to how much
grain-based or grain- and meat-based fast food people ate.
The researchers accounted for age, sex, race, body weight, household
income, and in some models adjusted for other potential sources of
phthalate-containing foods, like those obtained from vending
machines and restaurants, but the association with fast food
remained, Zota said.
“These studies cannot alone establish causality,” she noted. But,
“the results are both statistically significant and meaningful,” she
“Some likely sources include the tubing used upstream in the
processing of dairy and meat, as well as the packaging at various
stages of production,” she said. “Another potential source is the
gloves employees wear while handling it,” which are often vinyl
gloves, Zota said.
“The results suggest that if you as an individual want to limit your
chemical exposures, one potential way to do that is limiting fast
food and processed food,” she said.
But individuals can only do so much to limit their exposure to these
ubiquitous chemicals, she said.
“It’s going to require a number of stakeholders to address the
problems including people who regulate what can be added to food
contact materials and food packaging, the Food and Drug
Administration, fast food companies themselves, and manufacturers of
tubing,” Zota said.
Phthalate levels are regulated in food in the European Union, but
not in the U.S., she said.
SOURCE: http://1.usa.gov/1YtM51A Environmental Health Perspectives,
online April 13, 2016.
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