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Phthalates, a Harmful Chemical, is Found in Fast-food, Researchers Say

— November 10, 2021

Some fast-food contains a chemical that appears to be harmful when ingested.

Researchers from George Washington University conducted a study in which they purchased 64 fast-food items in San Antonio, Texas, from well-known national chains, and found harmful chemicals in a majority of the samples collected.  The chemicals found in the food from McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Chipotle consisted of phthalates, which have been “linked to endocrine system issues, fertility issues, and a potential increase for learning, attention, and behavioral disorders in children,” they reported.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration, the governmental body that is responsible for regulating food safety, does not have legal parameters for phthalate concentrations in food, the research team reported.  However, the FDA explains on its page, “Phthalate esters (phthalates) are synthetic chemicals with a broad spectrum of uses.  Phthalates are found in certain pharmaceutical formulations, primarily as a plasticizer in enteric coatings of solid oral drug products to maintain flexibility, but they also may be used for different functions in other dosage forms. Phthalates also are found in other products for uses such as softeners of plastics, solvents in perfumes, and additives to nail polish, as well as in lubricants and insect repellents.”

Phthalates, a Harmful Chemical, is Found in Fast-food, Researchers Say
Photo by Mikechie Esparagoza from Pexels

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also offers information on how individuals are exposed.  The CDC states, “People are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have contacted products containing phthalates.  Some exposure can occur from breathing phthalate particles in the air.  Children crawl around and touch many things, then put their hands in their mouths.  Because of that hand-to-mouth behavior, phthalate particles in dust might be a greater risk for children than for adults. Inside a person’s body, phthalates are converted into breakdown products (metabolites) that quickly leave the body in urine.”

“Phthalates,” according to the agency, “affect the reproductive systems of animals” (the effects of which have been studied for years).  The health effects on humans from exposures to a low amount of of the chemical is not as clear.  It tends to have negative health effects when ingested by mouth or absorbed through the skin in larger amounts.

Interestingly, the CDC also reports that “adult women have higher levels of metabolites measured in urine than do men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.”  Thus, the chemical is found in many hygiene products and regularly absorbed in that way.

The FDA’s site includes some pharmaceutical industry guidelines on the presence of the chemical in medications and warns of the “potential human health risks associated with exposure to dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP).”  The FDA recommends that drugmakers “avoid the use of these two specific phthalates as excipients in CDER-regulated drug and biologic products, including prescription and nonprescription products.”  The agency is also expected to respond with a recommendation after the fast-food findings.

“Although the FDA has high safety standards, as new scientific information becomes available, we reevaluate our safety assessments,” said an FDA spokesperson.

McDonald’s diverted blame to its supply chain, responding to the research that, since 2015, it “has prohibited its suppliers from using phthalates in guest packaging and gloves used in our restaurants.  As scientific understanding of the ways phthalates are unintentionally introduced into the food system grows, we’ll continue to evaluate and innovate our processes.”


Industrial plastics found in some fast food, researchers say

CDC: Phthalates Factsheet

Limiting the Use of Certain Phthalates as Excipients in CDER-Regulated Products

Some fast-food items contain plastics linked to serious health problems, new report shows

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