Is your long-term health worth more than a deluxe combo meal?
A study published Tuesday has added further evidence that phthalates, so-called “everywhere chemicals,” are particularly abundant in fast food dishes. This chemical group of “plasticizers” can be found in just about any product on store shelves, from soaps to food and, yes, as its descriptor suggests, in plastics.
While it’s used to give various materials more pliability — like plastic — it’s also known to disrupt hormonal activity in humans and animals when exposed to the stuff in high doses.
Lariah Edwards, a postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University and lead author of the new study, appearing in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental, told Gizmodo that plasticizing chemicals are “widespread” in prepared and fast foods in the US — “a finding that means many consumers are getting a side of potentially unhealthy chemicals along with their meal,” Edwards said. “Stronger regulations are needed to help keep these harmful chemicals out of the food supply.”
Edwards’ team looked at 64 individual fast food items, including cheeseburgers, french fries and burritos. Their study follows earlier work, published in 2018, which found that Americans who reported a relatively higher level of fast food consumption also showed higher rates of phthalates in urine samples, compared to those who ate more home-cooked meals.
Aside from food samples, this latest study also collected pairs of food-handling gloves at some of the restaurants pegged for the study.
Though apparently harmless during low-level exposure, such chemicals, which may interfere with natural hormonal processes, have been linked to developmental issues in children, and shown to raise their risk of asthma, obesity and fertility problems. However, researchers have yet to determine just what amount of these substances, known as endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC), is considered safe in the long term.
The new research revealed various phthalates in up to 81% of the foods tested — and as much as 89% when it came to other non-phthalate plasticizers, used more recently to replace conventional phthalates. Scientists warn these new generation plasticizers have also not been properly tested either, and only work to rebrand the now-stigmatized phthalate.
Meat products contained the highest level of plasticizing chemicals, they found, though it’s unclear whether the chemicals had leached from the plasticized product packaging, or simply integrated directly into the recipe for one reason or another.
Scientists warn that the potentially harmful effects of phlalates and similar chemicals put an undue burden on poorer communities, especially, where fast food restaurants tend to cluster.
“Additional research needs to be done to find out whether people living in such food deserts” — meaning regions where fresh, whole foods are more scarce — “are at higher risk of exposure to these harmful chemicals,” said Ami Zota, second study author professor at GWU.
The new findings come just a few weeks after an alarming study found that people with the highest levels of the phthalates in their bodies are at a greater risk of death from any cause, contributing to between 91,000 and 107,000 premature deaths annually in Americans aged 55 to 64.