Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Scientists find shocking amount of toxic chemicals in fast food

Story at a glance

  • Researchers tested popular fast food items like hamburgers, pizza and burritos for traces of phthalates.
  • High levels of phthalates have been linked to fertility issues, asthma and cognitive development problems in children.
  • So far, the federal government has not banned the use of phthalates in food packaging.

The next time you decide to order fast food instead of making dinner at home, you might want to reconsider. A new study shows many popular fast food items carry toxic plastics that are known to cause a host of health problems.

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Known as phthalates, this chemical is used as a plasticizer, increasing the durability of lots of different plastics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phthalates are used in hundreds of products from packaging, vinyl flooring, soaps, shampoos and more. Because of this, CDC researchers have found measurable levels of phthalates to be widespread in the general population.

That could be dangerous, as separate studies have linked phthalate exposure to reproductive disorders and fertility issues, as well as asthma and cognitive development issues

Now, a new, first of its kind study was published Wednesday by the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology that physically tested popular fast food items. The study indicated that fast food chains may be the biggest culprit of phthalate contamination. Americans spend at least 50 percent of their food budget on restaurant meals and fast food chains use a lot of plastic packaging. Food is also handled by workers wearing plastic gloves, making those who consume fast food especially vulnerable.


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Researchers sampled the most popular fast food chains in three categories: hamburgers, pizza and Tex-Mex in selected restaurants in San Antonio, Texas. They sampled hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fries, chicken burritos and cheese pizzas, ordering each with standard toppings. 

The results found that foods containing meat had higher chemical concentrations than non-meat items. Hamburgers sampled had the highest levels of phthalates, followed by burritos. Cheese pizza and fries had the lowest concentration of nearly all chemicals.  

Researchers also tested the plastic gloves worn by fast food workers and found traces of chemicals on those too. 

Russ Hauser, with the department of environmental health at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, co-authored a study earlier this year recommending policy reforms to the use of phthalates. He explained that the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of eight types of phthalates in children’s toys in 2017, but the use of phthalates in other types of products remains completely voluntary by manufacturers. 


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