Rubber gloves rub off on fast food, study finds | Sciences | In-depth science and technology report | DW
Rubber gloves have become as ubiquitous as face masks. Where two years ago your local barber or cafe would have treated you and your rollers with bare skin two years after the start of this pandemic and many of us would shrink from a drawn hand.
And the same is true in restaurant kitchens: whether it’s salads or burgers and fries, kitchen staff are most likely to wear gloves these days.
But if they can protect us from a viral infection, those same gloves could let toxic chemicals slip on us.
These are the fundamental conclusions of a new study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
Nothing like non-toxic
However, let’s take fear out of the fear story – we know there are potentially toxic chemicals in various food chains.
Previous studies have looked at how the microplastics in toothpaste find their way into the oceans and then into the fish we eat. This is in addition to the shopping bags and food containers we throw into the environment.
Studies have looked at plastic packaging used by food producers and supermarkets. We know there is a problem.
But the authors of this latest study say few studies have looked at the transfer of chemicals from rubber gloves (also known as vinyl) to foods prepared in restaurants.
The problem with phthalates
In a small “preliminary” study, researchers said they wanted to record the levels of ortho-phthalates and replacement plasticizers in food and food handling gloves at American fast food restaurants.
Alternative phthalates and plasticizers are chemicals that are added to materials, such as the rubber of vinyl gloves, to make them softer or softer to the touch.
Researchers have found significant traces of these chemicals in burgers, chicken nuggets, burritos and other fast foods, even though these chemicals are banned in other consumer goods.
A phthalate known as DBP (also DnBP) has been used in PVC flooring, adhesives, and even printing inks. But its use has been banned in childcare products, toys and cosmetics because it is considered carcinogenic.
“We detected ortho-phthalates or alternative plasticizers in all food samples,” write the study authors. “DnBP was the most frequently detected ortho-phthalate in food at 81%.”
They also detected DEHT, a plasticizer introduced to replace more toxic chemicals, both in the gloves and in the foods they studied. DEHT is used in bottle caps, conveyor belts, flooring, and waterproof clothing.
A question of health equity
The researchers cite a project called TENDR, which “concluded that there is substantial evidence linking phthalate exposure to increased risks for children’s learning, attention and behavior problems.”
Pregnant women and communities of color may also be at greater risk of exposure to phthalates.
There is evidence, the researchers write, that “chemical contamination of food can have a disproportionate impact on marginalized groups.” They call it a health equity issue.
“Predominantly black areas of New York City have higher fast food densities than predominantly white areas, and high-income black neighborhoods have similar exposure to low-income black neighborhoods,” they write.
Such “food landscapes” can influence the “eating behavior” of a community, they say – what you can afford is what you eat.
Research is still limited
It’s not just through the food, however. Some studies suggest that children are at risk of phthalate exposure when they put pencils in their mouths and suck on erasers.
Phthalate contamination can also seep into the environment from flooring and other materials when the weather gets hot. These materials are everywhere.
Research on the effects of phthalates and alternative plasticizers is accelerating. This study is just one of at least two published in October.
Another published earlier this month suggests that phthalates may be “associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality”.
But scientists say the knowledge and size of the studies is limited.
This most recent study of phthalates in fast food only analyzed 64 food samples and 3 pairs of gloves in a neighborhood near their lab in Texas, USA.
It is a call for ever wider studies to come.