Would you like Phthalates With That?

Are you a fan of burgers with plastic on the side?

It's unlikely. However, a recent study shows that fast foods often contain large amounts of plastic softening chemicals which could lead to learning disabilities, hormone disruptions and infertility.

At issue are phthalates and other so-called "replacement plasticizers." These chemicals are used by manufacturers to soften plastics in food products. These chemicals include conveyor belts and gloves as well packaging, wrapping, and tubes.

The problem: phthalates and their plasticizer cousins don't seem to stay in their lane, easily migrating into the foods with which they come into contact. Researchers found that between 70% to 86% of all fast food they examined contained phthalates or plasticizers.

"We think our findings suggest that phthalates and replacement plasticizers are widespread in fast food meals," said study author Lariah Edwards. Lariah Edwards is a postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health, Washington, D.C.

Edwards didn't find the finding surprising given how fast-food items are "so heavily processed, packed and handled."

Still, it's a significant concern, she stressed, "since fast food meals are such a large part of the American diet," and because "phthalates are known to disrupt hormones in humans, and are linked to a long list of health problems, such as reproductive and children's neurodevelopmental effects."

Edwards, along with her coworkers purchased 64 sample meals from different fast food restaurants in one American town to get a better understanding of the problem. Three pairs of unutilized food handling gloves were also purchased.

Both the food and the gloves were then tested for 11 different types of phthalates and plasticizers.

The tested food contained ten of the eleven chemicals.

Over 80% of food samples contained DnBP phthalate, and 86% had DEHT plasticizer, which can be found commonly in gloves. A phthalate known by the name DEHP was found in 70% of food samples.

Cheeseburgers, chicken burritos and other meat products had the highest phthalate/plasticizer content, with much higher DEHT levels detected in burritos than in burgers.

The upside was that cheese pizzas were the most contaminated food, and French fries had been found to be DEHT-free.

It is unclear how harmful these chemicals may be to humans because not all have been studied thoroughly, according to the team.

Edwards noted that while researchers are still trying to determine the risks involved, it is important for consumers to know that there may be other dangers. Foods that have been prepared in restaurants can expose them.

With that in mind, Edwards said better oversight is needed, adding that she hopes "our work can be used by policymakers to help create stronger regulations to keep phthalates and replacement plasticizers out of our foods."

To reduce potential risks, people should "eat lower up the food chain". Edwards said that it basically refers to limiting your intake of meat.

However, she said that it is important to recognize that not everyone can access this method to minimize exposure. Her colleagues and she also cited their research that suggests home cooking is safer because people don't use plastic gloves or packaging when they prepare food.

Lona Sandyon, the program director at UT Southwestern Medical Center Dallas's department of nutritional studies, agrees with this strategy.

Sandon stated that many fast-food chains use meats, fish, or other food items precooked, frozen and then packaged in plastic and sent to their restaurant to be completed at the order time. These foods can be left wrapped in plastic until they are ready to eat.

Even relatively healthy foods can be exposed to plastic, she said, noting that organic or non-organic food items are at risk if they're stored in plastic containing these chemicals.

Sandon stated that there is a solution: "Eat less fast food and eat less food packaged in plastic." Make fresher meals at home by using fresh meats and chickens as well as fresh produce.

Edwards and her coworkers published their findings in The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, Oct. 27, 2007.