Hormone-disrupting chemicals, associated with adverse health outcomes, are abundant in meals available at popular American fast food restaurants, says a new study that calls for regulatory measures to reduce exposure to these compounds.
The scientists, including those from the George Washington University, assessed 64 samples of fast food meals from restaurants in the San Antonio, Texas, area for 11 chemicals such as phthalates and other substances starting to be used as replacements to these compounds.
Phthalates, widely used to give plastic and other substances flexibility, also mimic and tend to interfere with the body’s natural hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, previous research has shown. Earlier studies have also noted that pregnant women’s exposure to phthalates could alter the cognitive outcomes in their infants, as well as increase the children’s risk of health conditions like asthma and obesity.
In the new study, researchers found that 81 per cent of the food samples had a di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) and 70 per cent also contained di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) — both linked to fertility problems.
“Our preliminary findings suggest that ortho-phthalates remain ubiquitous and replacement plasticisers may be abundant in fast food meals,” the scientists wrote in the study, published on Tuesday in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
The sampled food included hamburgers, fries, chicken nuggets, chicken burritos, and cheese pizza, from outlets including burger shops, a pizza place, and a Tex-Mex restaurant.
The concentration of phthalates was “significantly higher in burritos than hamburgers,” the study noted, adding that foods containing meat had relatively higher levels of the chemical than others such as cheese pizza.
Based on the analysis, the scientists speculate that plastic packaging and food handling gloves, which contain plasticisers, may be the source of contamination, adding that with further confirmatory tests, the findings may help inform regulatory exposure reduction strategies.
Since poorer neighborhoods tend to have more fast-food outlets and less access to fresh foods, the researchers suspect that phthalate exposure could be more pronounced in places such as predominantly Black areas in New York City.
“Our prior work suggests that chemical contamination of food may disproportionally impact marginalised groups since we observed a stronger association between fast food intake and urinary metabolites of DEHP among Non-Hispanic Blacks compared to Non-Hispanic Whites and Hispanics in the US general population,” the scientists wrote in the study.
“These pathways likely contribute to the pervasive racial/ethnic disparities in chemical exposures,” they added.