Some fast food items contain chemicals from plastic linked to serious health problems, report says

What’s in this fast food burger? Sometimes harmful plastics.

A new study published on Tuesday reports that too often small amounts of industrial chemicals called phthalates (pronounced THA-lates), which are used to make plastics flexible, have been found in food samples from popular retail outlets. such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Chipotle. .

George Washington University researcher Lariah Edwards, Professor Ami Zota and colleagues purchased 64 fast food items from national hamburger chains McDonald’s and Burger King; pizza chains Pizza Hut and Domino’s; and the Tex-Mex chains Taco Bell and Chipotle, all around San Antonio, Texas.

The study found harmful chemicals in the majority of the samples taken. Phthalates are linked to health issues, including endocrine disruption, fertility and reproductive issues, and an increased risk of learning, attention and behavioral problems in children.

The six restaurant chains did not respond to requests for comment.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food safety, does not have legal thresholds limiting the concentrations of phthalates in food. The levels of phthalates found in the fast food the researchers tested were below the Environmental Protection Agency’s health protection thresholds, Edwards said. Under current guidelines, the levels of phthalates found by the researchers would not have alarmed federal agencies.

The FDA said in a statement it would review George Washington’s study and consider it part of the body of scientific evidence.

“Although the FDA has high safety standards, as new scientific information becomes available, we re-evaluate our safety assessments,” an FDA spokesperson said. “When new information raises safety issues, the FDA may revoke food additive approvals, if the FDA is no longer able to conclude that there is reasonable certainty that the authorized use is not harmful. .”

Although some phthalates have been banned in toys and other products, they are frequently used to make objects such as rubber gloves, industrial tubes or food conveyor belts, and can migrate from these objects into the food we ingest. .

All of the foods tested by the GWU researchers contained one or more phthalates or other plasticizing chemicals, according to the study, which received funding from foundations that promote liberal or leftist policies.

Food products sold by fast food chains are heavily processed, packaged, and handled, providing more opportunities to come into contact with these phthalates and plasticizers. The researchers collected food-handling gloves from numerous restaurants, which also tested positive for these chemicals.

Although identifying the sources of the chemicals was not part of the study, the researchers speculated that the concentration of these chemicals was due to the fact that alternative phthalates and plasticizers exist throughout the food supply chain, food contact packaging and food handling gloves, as well as processing equipment such as tubing and industrial conveyors, said Edwards, the lead author.

Researchers found that over 80% of food samples contained a phthalate called DnBP, which has been linked to an increased risk of asthma, and 70% contained DEHP, which has been shown to be linked to an increased risk. reproductive problems.

Additionally, the team also found that 86% of the food contained a plasticizer called DEHT, which was developed to replace phthalates, according to Edwards. The potential effects of these phthalate-free alternative plasticizers on human health and the environment are not yet well studied.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel has strongly recommended that relevant federal agencies study exposure to alternatives to phthalates and assess potential health risks, according to Patty Davis, press secretary for the CPSC. The FDA is responsible for regulating food packaging and food processing equipment as “incidental food additives.”

In the George Washington University study, foods containing meat had higher levels of phthalates, with chicken burritos and cheeseburgers testing for the highest DEHT (gloves collected from the same restaurants also contained this product chemical). Cheese pizzas and fries had the lowest levels of most chemicals tested.

Previous research by Zota, a professor of environmental and occupational health at GWU’s Milken School of Public Health, has shown that people who often cook their own food at home have lower levels of these chemicals in their bodies, likely because that home cooks do not use food handling. gloves or as much plastic packaging.

She also previously tracked fast food consumption in a national survey and found that people who reported eating more fast food had higher levels of phthalates.

The new report, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, is among the first to examine the link between fast food and phthalate-free plasticizers such as DEHT that are increasingly being used in place of banned phthalates or restricted in food packaging and processing equipment.

The study results also raise concerns that people of color and low-income Americans may be disproportionately affected by these chemicals, according to Zota.

“Inner city neighborhoods often have many fast food outlets but limited access to healthier foods like fruits and vegetables,” Zota said. “Further research needs to be conducted to find out if people living in such food deserts are at higher risk of exposure to these harmful chemicals.”

Edwards said the team selected the most popular restaurants in each category based on market share data, testing several outposts for each chain and sampling their best-selling food items, ordering each item with toppings. or standard fittings. Items were transported to the lab in a cooler in their original packaging, then each menu item was mixed into a mush, the liquid tested for these chemicals via a technique called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

Among the research funders were three California-based liberal foundations: the Passport Foundation, which funds left-wing economic and social policy and environmental causes; the Forsythia Foundation, which funds research aimed at reducing harmful chemicals in the environment; and the Marisla Foundation, which supports health service organizations and environmental causes.

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