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New U.S Study: Popular fast food items contain harmful chemical plastics 

A new U.S. study has found small amounts of dangerous industrial chemicals in food at fast-food favourites including McDonald’s and Domino’s. The study, based on samples from McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Burger King, Domino’s and Pizza Hut restaurants in San Antonio in the USA, found small amounts of phthalates. These chemicals, used to make plastics soft, were found in 80 per cent of the samples collected.

The preliminary study, entitled, ‘Phthalate and novel plasticizer concentrations in food items from U.S. fast food chains: a preliminary analysis’ was published at the end of last month in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. The researchers from George Washington University stated the objective of the study was to “examine ortho-phthalate and replacement plasticizer concentrations in foods and food handling gloves from U.S. fast food restaurants.”

Researchers obtained hamburgers, fries, chicken nuggets, chicken burritos, cheese pizza (in total, 64 food items) and gloves (3 pairs) from restaurants and analysed them for 11 chemicals using gas chromatography mass spectrometry. They used market share data to select the most popular items on the menu.

They found the plasticiser DEHT (dioctyl terephthalate) at the highest concentrations in both foods and gloves, and detected chemicals DnBP and DEHP in 81 per cent and 80 per cent of food samples, respectively.

Researchers added that median DEHT concentrations were “significantly higher” in burritos than in hamburgers and said that DEHT was not detected in fries, whilst cheese pizza had the lowest levels of most chemicals.

“We generally observed higher chemical concentrations in foods containing meat relative to other foods, such as cheese pizza,” the experts stated.

Summarising their findings, researchers stated: “To our knowledge, these are the first measurements of DEHT in food. Our preliminary findings suggest that ortho-phthalates remain ubiquitous and replacement plasticizers may be abundant in fast food meals.”

In an impact statement, the team of seven researchers said that there were “detectable” levels of chemicals in the fast food items, and added that food handling gloves may be the source of the contaminated products.

“A selection of popular fast food items sampled in this study contain detectable levels of replacement plasticizers and concerning ortho-phthalates. In addition, food handling gloves contain replacement plasticizers, which may be a source of food contamination. These results, if confirmed, may inform individual and regulatory exposure reduction strategies.”

Phthalates plasticizers are linked to a range of health problems including issues in the endocrine system which is a series of glands that produce and secrete hormones in the body, a prior study found.

The chemicals are also linked to fertility and reproductive issues, with a study performed in 2020 having found that the chemical may ‘induce alterations in puberty, the development of testicular dysgenesis syndrome, cancer, and fertility disorders in both males and females’. And a recent study, published earlier this year, also urged ‘critical’ policy reforms on the chemicals after it discovered that it raises the risk of attention, learning and behavioural disorders in children.

Phthalates are employed for a range of things and are used in food processing, often being found in rubber gloves and industrial tubing. The researchers stated that they took this into consideration as the chemical can transfer from these items to the food, meaning that we end up ingesting it.

Food sold by most fast food chains usually undergo a long process of packaging, handling and cooking before consumers end up with it.

The researchers said that the study adds to prior research by focusing on fast food meals “that have been highly processed, packaged and handled”. They added that, by contrast, to date, a majority of the studies connecting fast food consumption to ortho-phthalate exposure have relied on biomonitoring data.

“Our study supports the results from these biomonitoring studies and provides exposure data that can be used in phthalate risk assessments.”

They noted that multiple phthalates contribute to “common adverse health effects” and that because we are exposed to such chemicals, the National Academies have recommended that regulatory agencies consider a cumulative risk assessment approach to the chemicals, and that, therefore, accurate data from “all potential exposure sources are critical”.

The researchers said that until the US takes regulatory action to address phthalate contamination in foods, their recent findings could “push restaurants to voluntarily adopt policies to eliminate harmful chemicals in their foods”.

They also pointed to the drawbacks of the study, writing that their findings must be considered “in light of the strengths and limitations of this study,” including small sample sizes and sampling foods only from one city.

“This is the first study to quantify concentrations of ortho-phthalates and replacement plasticizers in food and gloves from U.S. fast food chains and the first to detect DEHT in foods. However, since this is a preliminary study, there are some important limitations.

“We had small sample sizes, particularly for the DEHT analysis, which limited our ability to conduct some statistical analyses. We only sampled the most popular foods from each restaurant and all the restaurants were located in one city, so our findings may not be generalizable to all meals served at all fast food restaurants.

“In this preliminary study, the quantification of chemicals in food handling gloves lacked precision. Due to limitations in our extraction methods, we were only able to detect chemicals present in gloves at high concentrations.

“In addition, chemical concentrations in the gloves may have decreased since the time the glove was manufactured, so we are likely underestimating the concentrations of DEHT and DINCH in our glove samples.”



Despite the introduction of some regulations, phthalates can still be found in plastic packaging, cosmetics, hair sprays, soaps and other products, according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC).

The CDC also asserts that: “Finding a detectable amount of phthalate metabolites in urine does not mean the levels will cause harmful health effects,” adding that CDC researchers “found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the general population,” indicating that phthalate exposure is “widespread” in the U.S. population (April 2021).

Lariah Edwards, the PhD researcher of George Washington University who wrote the new U.S. study, told Verywell that: “Phthalates are kind of an everywhere chemical.”

When asked if the public could avoid phthalate chemicals, she said: “Limiting your fast food, in general, is the other way to minimize exposure, but that is not something that is accessible to everybody,” adding, “Stronger policy would be the best way to ensure we’re not exposed to these chemicals.”

Verywell also reported that Lauri Wright, director of the Centre for Nutrition and Good Security at the University of North Florida, advised against microwaving food in a plastic container as this can increase the risk of phthalate exposure. Instead, she recommended reheating food on a ceramic dish.

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