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New US study finds fast food consumption associated with exposures to phthalates

New research, published today finds that people in the US who eat more fast food have higher levels of certain phthalate chemicals in their urine. The chemicals found, DEHP and DINP, are used as plasticisers in PVC plastics, and their use is partially restricted in Europe due to health concerns; they are also hormone (endocrine) disrupters.

There are a range of health concerns about DEHP and DINP, as the authors state:

“Experimental animal studies demonstrate that DEHP and DiNP have endocrine-disrupting properties because of their anti-androgenic effects on the male reproductive system. Human exposure to DEHP has been associated with adverse reproductive, neurobehavioral, and respiratory outcomes in children and metabolic disease risk factors such as insulin resistance in adolescents and adults. Though epidemiologic evidence of DiNP is less complete, recent studies report associations between exposure and similar health outcomes including adverse respiratory and metabolic outcomes in children”

For more information on endocrine (or hormone) disrupting chemicals, see our FAQ.

The study analysed urine samples from thousands of people and compared them with their recollection of what they had eaten in the last 24 hours. Food is likely to have been contaminated with phthalates during processing, or through packaging.

As the press release for the study states:

“People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher,” says lead author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute SPH. “Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults.”

Zota and her colleagues found that the more fast food participants in the study ate the higher the exposure to phthalates. People in the study with the highest consumption of fast food had 23.8 percent higher levels of the breakdown product for DEHP in their urine sample. And those same fast food lovers had nearly 40 percent higher levels of DiNP metabolites in their urine compared to people who reported no fast food in the 24 hours prior to the testing.

The researchers also discovered that grain and meat items were the most significant contributors to phthalate exposure. Zota says the grain category contained a wide variety of items including bread, cake, pizza, burritos, rice dishes and noodles. She also notes that other studies have also identified grains as an important source of exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals.

In the EU there are limits on how much phthalate is supposed to migrate from food contact materials into food, but DEHP and DINP remain widely used. For example, the EU is currently deciding whether to allow an application for continued use of DEHP in consumer products made with recycled PVC; CHEM Trust has this week joined with other health groups to ask EU Governments to reject this application.

It’s worth noting that another hormone disrupting chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA), was also found in the urine of those who were tested. The EU will soon decide about a proposed ban on the use of BPA in till receipts, with CHEM Trust supporting a ban. The EU Commission has also made a proposal to reduce the amounts of BPA that are permitted to migrate from packaging into food, but CHEM Trust believes this does not go far enough.

Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, said:

This is yet more evidence of our exposure to a cocktail of chemicals through our food and environment. Whatever diets people have they should be protected by effective regulations and responsible companies. It’s time to phase out all hormone disrupting chemicals, replacing them with safer alternatives.”