Eating fast food may expose a person to potentially harmful chemicals known as phthalates, a new study suggests. People who consumed lots of fast food tended to have levels of phthalates in their urine that were 24 percent to 40 percent higher than people who rarely ate take-out fare, the researchers found.
“We found statistically significant associations between the amount of fast food consumed in the prior 24 hours and the levels of two particular phthalates found in the body,” said study author Ami Zota. She is an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, in Washington, D.C.
However, the study did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between fast food and phthalate exposure.
The two phthalates in question are di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and diisononyl phthalate (DiNP), Zota said. Industries use these chemicals to make plastics flexible, and they can be found in a wide array of food packaging and food-processing machinery.
The U.S. Congress has permanently banned the use of DEHP in children’s toys, baby bottles, and soothers, and it has temporarily banned DiNP for the same uses, according to the Environmental Working Group. The group is a nonprofit that focuses on environmental health issues.
The bans are based on concerns that phthalates can affect the development of the male reproductive system, Zota said. The chemicals also have been implicated in birth defects, childhood behavioral problems and childhood chronic illnesses, such as asthma.
The two phthalates can get into fast food during the processing of the food, explained Shanna Swan. She is a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science with the department of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, in New York City.
The chemicals also can leach into the food from the packaging in which it is stored, both prior to cooking and when it is served, Zota said.
Fast food even can pick up phthalates from the vinyl gloves that restaurant workers wear to prevent food poisoning, Zota added.