The study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology Wednesday, analyzed 64 food samples from six burger, pizza and Tex Mex restaurants in San Antonio, Texas.
“We found phthalates and other plasticizers are widespread in prepared foods available at U.S. fast food chains, a finding that means many consumers are getting a side of potentially unhealthy chemicals along with their meal,” lead author Lariah Edwards, a postdoctoral scientist at George Washington University, told Gizmodo. “Stronger regulations are needed to help keep these harmful chemicals out of the food supply.”
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic more flexible. However, they are also endocrine disruptors, which means they can either mimic or interrupt the normal working of hormones in the body. As such, they have been linked to health problems including asthma, obesity and fertility problems. Research has shown that children exposed to phthalates in utero could have altered cognitive abilities or be at greater risk from other health problems, the Independent reported.
Plastics are all around us, but scientists at George Washington University have found evidence that fast food is a major source of exposure to these particular chemicals, Gizmodo noted. In a 2018 study, a California and George-Washington-based research team found that survey respondents who said they ate out more had higher phthalate concentrations in their urine then those who reported eating at home.
The latest study, however, tested the food itself. The restaurants were selected using market share data to determine the most popular hamburger, pizza and Tex Mex chains, the study authors explained. These restaurants included McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Chipotle and Taco Bell, The Washington Post reported.
They then tested the food samples from these restaurants for 11 chemicals. All of the food samples contained one or more of the chemicals. They found a chemical called DnBP, which has been linked to asthma risk, in 81 percent of the samples and a chemical called DEHP, which has been linked to reproductive problems, in 70 percent of the samples. Further, they found a chemical called DEHT, an understudied plasticizer designed to replace phthalates, in 86 percent of the samples.
Further, they found that meats had the highest phthalate levels while fries and cheese pizzas had the lowest. Chicken burritos and cheeseburgers in particular had the highest levels of DEHT.
The researchers think the plastic is entering the food either through packaging or the gloves worn by food-handlers. The scientists tested gloves from three of the restaurants and found they contained phthalate-replacement chemicals, Gizmodo reported.
The amounts found in the food samples were below the safety thresholds set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, The Washington Post pointed out. The Food and Drug Administration currently sets no limits on phthalates or related chemicals.
“Although the FDA has high safety standards, as new scientific information becomes available, we reevaluate our safety assessments,” an FDA spokesperson told The Washington Post in response to the study. “Where new information raises safety questions, the FDA may revoke food additive approvals, if the FDA is no longer able to conclude that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from the authorized use.”
The researchers also expressed concern that there might be an environmental justice component to phthalate exposure.
“Disadvantaged neighborhoods often have plenty of fast-food outlets but limited access to healthier foods like fruits and vegetables,” study co-author and George Washington University professor Ami Zota told The Washington Post. “Additional research needs to be done to find out whether people living in such food deserts are at higher risk of exposure to these harmful chemicals.”