By Dr. Mercola
Fast food contains many ingredients that compromise health, but did you know these convenience meals also come with an extra serving of endocrine-disrupting chemicals? According to recent research, people who eat drive-through hamburgers and take-out pizzas have higher levels of phthalates in their urine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected data on nearly 8,900 Americans of all age groups between 2003 and 2010 as part of a nationwide survey on health and nutrition. Participants reported everything they'd eaten in the past 24 hours and provided a urine sample.
While other studies have investigated exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals from processed food in general, this is the largest study looking at exposure specifically from fast food meals.1,2,3
"Fast food" was broadly defined as food from restaurants without table service and/or those with takeout or drive-through service. So besides McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and similar establishments, it also includes sandwich shops, Starbucks, and other "casual dining" restaurants. As reported by Time magazine:4
"The new report,5 published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that people who ate more fast food also had higher levels of two substances that occur when phthalates — which make plastic more flexible — break down in the body. "
Fast Food Consumption Significantly Increases Phthalate Levels in Your Body
The two phthalate metabolites identified in this particular study were:6
• Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), a highly lipophilic (fat-soluble) chemical that is loosely chemically bonded to the plastic, allowing it to leach out into other fat-containing solutions in contact with the plastic.
Animal studies show that exposure to DEHP can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes of prenatal and neonatal males.
• Di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), a commonly used plasticizer in flexible PVC products.7 While DiNP has been considered harmless from a health and environmental perspective, more recent research suggests it may in fact have similar effects as DEHP and other phthalates.
For example, a 2015 study8 linked both DEHP and DiNP to increased insulin resistance in adolescents.
Approximately one-third of the respondents reported eating fast food in the past 24 hours, and according to the authors, "that alone tells you the public health impact of this type of food preparation."9
Those who got at least 35 percent of their calories from fast food had nearly 24 percent higher levels of DEHP and 39 percent higher DiNP in their urine compared to those who had not consumed any fast food in that time frame.
In those who ate some fast food, but got less than 35 percent of their calories from it, DEHP and DiNP levels were still nearly 16 and 25 percent higher respectively.
Avoiding Fast Food Can Be a Simple Way to Cut Phthalate Exposure
As noted by the authors, many scientific and clinical bodies, such as the Endocrine Society, now suggest reducing exposure to phthalates — especially during pregnancy.
The problem is they're so widely used, making avoidance difficult. According to this research, simply abstaining from fast food is one way you can significantly reduce your exposure.
Personal care products are another major source of phthalates that are within your control. Pregnant women and young children are at particularly high risk when it comes to these kinds of chemicals. As noted by CNN:10
"The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a report11 in 2013 stating that high levels of exposure to phthalates could lead to adverse reproductive outcomes in women.
Research has linked these chemicals with increased risk of fibroids and endometriosis, which can cause infertility, and reduced IQ and behavioral problems in children exposed in the womb. High phthalate levels have also been linked with diabetes risk in women and adolescents...
'This study shows that fast food may be an especially important source of phthalate exposure,' said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program."
Phthalates From Plastic Gloves, Conveyor Belts, Packaging — It All Adds Up
The researchers point out that one reason fast food exposes you to higher levels of plasticizing chemicals is because workers also use plastic gloves when handling each and every ingredient, and that's a source of phthalate contamination too, over and beyond the actual packaging.
Japan banned vinyl gloves for use in food establishments back in 2001 due to their phthalate content. In the U.S. however, use of vinyl gloves has actually increased over the years due to the rising prevalence of latex allergies.
While additional research needs to be done to identify which foods pose the greatest risk, the study did find that meats and grain-based food items — even if they were not from a fast food restaurant — tended to result in higher phthalate exposure.
The exact reason for this is still unclear, but it could be related to the way they're processed, or because the fats they contain bind phthalates more efficiently. That said, fast food as a category had the strongest association with elevated phthalate levels by far.
Researcher Ami Zota notes that previous studies have compared phthalate levels in food before and after packaging, showing that levels rise 100 percent after being packaged. This clearly demonstrates these chemicals do leach out of the plastic and into the food.
Moreover, if the food is packaged when hot, the migration of phthalates is sped up. Findings such as these are hotly refuted by the chemical industry which, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still maintains that phthalates are both safe and relatively stable within the plastic.
Chemical Industry Insists Decades' Old Safety Levels Are Adequate
Both the National Restaurant Association and the American Chemical Society responded to the study in question saying the phthalate levels found in fast food are "well below" levels the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems potentially harmful to human health.12
However, EPA safety levels for DEHP have not been revised since 1988. And, according to study author Ami Zota: "The same range of concentrations measured in this [group] overlaps with the range of concentrations that have been measured in some of epidemiological studies that find adverse health effects," so EPA levels may simply be too lenient.
In fact, some researchers suggest there may be NO safe level of phthalates in humans. Dr. Leo Trasande, an associate professor of Pediatrics and Environmental Medicine who has researched phthalates in food, told Civil Eats:13
"No studies in humans have found a safe level of phthalate exposure. We know there are effects of low level exposure. For example, the levels found in this new study are comparable to those previously linked to blood pressure increases14 and metabolic effects15 in children."
Health Risks Associated With Phthalates
Phthalates are one of the groups of "gender-bending" chemicals causing males of all species to become more female. These chemicals have disrupted the endocrine systems of wildlife, causing testicular cancer, genital deformations, low sperm counts and infertility in a number of species, including polar bears, deer, whales and otters. Scientists suspect phthalates may affect human fertility and reproduction in similar ways.
Animal studies have also linked phthalate exposure to a wide range of other health problems, including the following (see chart below)16,17,18 The reason for their diverse effects has to do with the fact that they mimic natural sex hormones. This is particularly problematic in children who are still growing and developing, as the glands of your endocrine system and the hormones they release influence almost every cell, organ, and function of your body.
Besides being instrumental in sexual function and reproductive processes, your endocrine system also plays a role in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, and metabolism.
✓ Reduced IQ in children19,20 (phthalates may affect the activity of aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen, which plays an important role in brain development)
✓ "Decreased dysgenesis syndrome" involving cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), hypospadias (birth defect in which opening of urethra is on the underside of the penis instead of at the end), and oligospermia (low sperm count)
✓ Interference with sexual differentiation in utero
✓ Enlarged prostate glands, testicular cancer, breast cancer, and uterine fibroids
✓ Impaired ovulatory cycles and polycystic ovary disease (PCOS)
✓ Numerous hormonal disruptions and metabolic disease
✓ Early or delayed puberty
✓ Disturbed lactation
✓ Toxicity to developing male reproductive systems21,22
✓ Neurodevelopmental delays, inattention, hyperactivity, and symptoms of autism23
✓ Miscarriage and preterm birth
✓ Allergies and respiratory problems24
Phthalates Are Everywhere
Phthalates are among the most pervasive of all known endocrine disrupters. According to EPA estimates, more than 470 million pounds of phthalates are produced each year.25
They're primarily used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible and resilient, but they can also be found in air fresheners, dryer sheets, and personal care products like shampoo, shower gels, lotions, and makeup. Their prevalence in personal care products is thought to be the reason why women tend to have higher levels of phthalates in their system than men.
Furniture, upholstery, mattresses, and wall coverings can also contain phthalates. They've even been detected in infant formula and baby food (likely because they migrated from the packaging materials). They are also used as "inert" ingredients in pesticides.26
Considering how ubiquitous they are, avoiding phthalates entirely may be near impossible. Being mindful when shopping for food, household, and personal care products can go a long way toward minimizing your exposure, but the risks these chemicals pose really demand a more universal response.
As Zota told Time magazine:27 "Our study helps shed light on one potential way that people can reduce their exposure to these chemicals through their diet, but it also points to a broader problem of widespread chemicals in our food systems that will require many different types of stakeholders to get involved in order to fix it."
Tips to Help You Avoid Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
To limit your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), keep the following guidelines in mind when shopping for food, personal care and household products.
✓ Avoid fast-food restaurant fare and processed goods. Eating a diet focused on locally grown, ideally organic, whole foods cooked from scratch will significantly limit your exposure to not only phthalates and BPA but also a wide array of other chemicals, including synthetic food additives and pesticides.
✓ Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Besides phthalates, avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
✓ Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans; be aware that even "BPA-free" plastics typically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad for you as BPA.
✓ Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics.
EWG's Skin Deep database28 can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
✓ Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap as it too contains phthalates that can migrate into your food (especially if you microwave food wrapped in plastic).
✓ Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or glass doors.
✓ Use glass baby bottles and drinking bottles.
✓ Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
✓ Filter your tap water for both drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants.
Under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for DEHP of 0.006 mg/dL, or 6 ppb.29
Note that the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates DEHP levels only for public water supplies, not for well water.
✓ Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals, including phthalates.
Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.
✓ If you have PVC pipes, you may have DEHP leaching into your water supply. If you have PVC pipe from before 1977, you will definitely want to upgrade to a newer material.
This "early-era" PVC pipe can leach a carcinogenic compound called vinyl chloride monomer into your water. Alternatives to PVC for water piping include ductile iron, high-density polyethylene, concrete, copper, and PEX.30
✓ Consider replacing vinyl flooring with a "greener" material. Also avoid soft, flexible plastic flooring, such as those padded play-mat floors for kids (often used in day cares and kindergartens), as there's a good chance it is made from phthalate-containing PVC.
✓ Read the labels and avoid anything containing phthalates. Besides DEHP, also look for DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), BzBP (benzyl butyl phthlate), and DMP (dimethyl phthalate).
Also be wary of anything listing a "fragrance," which often includes phthalates.
✓ Make sure your baby's toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It's advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.