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Many restaurant meals come with a side of hormone-disrupting phthalates

Whether it's canteen food, a takeaway pizza or a fancy restaurant, a new study suggests that we're exposed to potentially hormone-damaging phthalates through eating.
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid (Getty Images)

The more you eat, the more exposed you are to potentially potentially dangerous chemicals known as phthalates, suggests a new study published Wednesday in the journal Environment Internationally published.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals that help to make plastics more flexible and durable. They can be found in everything from cosmetics to children's toys to medical devices. However, most of us are faced with low phthalate doses by contaminating our food. Research, mainly in animals, has shown that certain phthalates can spoil the organs and glands responsible for the production of hormones, especially androgens such as testosterone.

In the current study, researchers examined over 1

0,000 people in the US at the age of six, who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES), an annual study that combines in-depth interviews and physical exams. from 2005 to 2014. As part of the NHANES, these volunteers provided urine samples and a food diary of everything they had eaten the previous day. Because phthalates remain in our system for only about a day, the researchers used volunteers' urine to estimate their total dietary phthalate content.

"We found that people who eat more – in restaurants, cafeterias, and fast food restaurants – have nearly 35 percent higher phthalate levels than people who eat more often at home," said senior author Ami Zola, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Health Protection at the Milken Institute School of Public Health of George Washington University, Gizmodo via email

The team's earlier research had already indicated that fast food contains higher levels of phthalates, but the latest study is the first to look closely at all types of food prepared outside the home and across different age groups.

The results are relevant for everyone as two-thirds of the study sample has been eating recently. According to Pam Factor-Litvak, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who studied phthalate exposure in expectant mothers and small children, they are particularly relevant to children.

"They develop and hormone balance is really important to them," said Factor-Litvak, who is not affiliated with the new study. "So anything that interferes with that may be pretty important."

Two phthalates accounted for 75 percent of total phthalate exposure found in the study, known as di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), respectively. Studies have specifically found a link between DEHP with conditions such as childhood asthma, while other research has linked DiNP intended as a replacement for older phthalates to reduce cognitive or behavioral problems in children. Both phthalates are abundant in food packaging, Factor-Litvak notes.

"It is very likely that the exposure for children will come mainly from packaging," she said, "and especially from these two phthalates."

Overall, children had the highest phthalate concentrations in their system, while the largest difference in phthalate exposure between diners and non-diners was observed among teenagers.

In recent years, organizations such as the World Health Organization have been investigating phthalate exposure research. Their 2012 report concluded that while much work still needs to be done to decipher the link between phthalates and human health, there is ample evidence that exposure during fetal development and puberty can cause a number of complications Genital births, infertility, asthma and lower IQ. In adults, it may increase the risk of certain cancers, obesity and even Alzheimer's

US authorities have voiced similar concerns about phthalates. A 2014 Consumer Protection Commission report found that up to 10 percent of US mothers could be exposed to unsafe phthalate concentrations, Zola points out. In the same year, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced a new requirement for companies to tell them whether they wanted to use phthalates in a new product or application, which the agency would review and possibly reject. Both the EPO and agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration are in the middle of conducting their own reviews of the evidence (given the recent track record of the EPA, this is probably more daunting than it should be).

The US and countries in the European Union have also banned certain phthalates from being used in children's toys, while states like California are planning companies to include phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals on their product labels. But there may not be safe phthalate, said Factor-Litvak. Unlike other toxic chemicals that require a high enough dose to hurt us, there is no evidence that phthalates have no threshold effect.

"This is worrying because even very little exposure to some of these chemicals will be harmful," she said.

Zola and his team believe that much more needs to be done to keep phthalates out of humans, including complete removal of phthalates.

"There are some things that individuals can do to reduce their exposure to harmful phthalates, such as eating less and cooking more at home, or increasing their intake of fresh foods and their consumption of processed or processed foods reduce packaged foods, "said Zola. "However, as these chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment, we also need changes in policy and in the marketplace to make sure everyone has better access to healthy food."

Zola and his team are now planning to investigate exactly how phthalates contaminate our food.

[Environment International]

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