Washington D.C. – People who consume more fast food are at a higher risk of exposure to phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals found in fast foods mostly based on grain and meat. A study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives revealed that people who frequently eat take-out pizzas, drive-thru hamburgers, burritos, cake, and bread had significantly higher levels of these chemicals in their urine.

Although researchers are yet to find out what phthalates actually mean for human health, they warned people to reduce their fast food consumption and eat more fruits and vegetables.

The findings of this study are partly based on data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 2003 and 2010 as part of surveys conducted nationwide on health and nutrition, including over 8,877 adults and children.

People who consume more fast food are at a higher risk of exposure to phthalates. Photo credit: Techno Buffalo
People who consume more fast food are at a higher risk of exposure to phthalates. Photo credit: Techno Buffalo

Phthalates and where to find them

These chemicals are used to make food packaging items because they can make plastic more flexible. Phthalates are found in dairy products and other materials normally involved in the production of fast food. People can be exposed to them while using soaps, nail polish, perfumes, and medications, as phthalates can also be inhaled and absorbed through the skin.

As for food, it is now considered as the major route of exposure, according to Linda Birnbaum, head of the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.

These chemicals are contained in packaging materials and equipment involved in food processing, including conveyor belts and tubing. Phthalates can leach into food during such procedures. Birnbaum said that gloves used by about everyone handling ingredients at a fast food establishment to prevent food poisoning contain phthalates that can be transferred to food.

She noted that the risk increases in the process of handling and packaging, meaning that food found at the grocery store is not that contaminated.

The CDC says that two types of phthalates known as DEHP and DiNP can leach into food and have the potential to affect the reproductive systems of lab animals, but more research must be done to fully understand the harm these chemicals can cause to human health.

The study

Researchers at GWU’s Milken Institute School of Public Health analyzed data from the nearly 9,000 participants, who answered questions about their consumption of fast food and were required to provide urinary samples so the research team could test them for the presence of DEHP and DiNP.

“People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher,” said lead author Ami Zota in a press release, as reported by the Huffington Post. She is an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

One-third of the participants reported having eaten fast food in the last 24 hours. This group had higher levels of DiNP and DEHP than the participants who had not consumed fast food the day prior.

Zota and her team did not find a relation between fast food consumption and bisphenol-A or BPA, another hormone disruptor that has been linked with brain development problems and early puberty.

It remains unclear how phthalates actually impact the human body, but those who do not want to wait until researchers find more answers can reduce their fast food consumption to prevent damage.

“People concerned about this issue can’t go wrong by eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food,” Zota commented. “A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates.”

Source: Environmental Health Perspectives