On October 27, 2021, Lariah Edwards from George Washington University in Washington DC, and co-authors published their findings on phthalate and replacement plasticizer concentrations in fast foods in the peer-reviewed Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. Edwards and colleagues “detected ortho-phthalates or replacement plasticizers in all food samples (n=64).” Di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP, CAS 84-74-2) and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP, CAS 117-81-7) were the most frequently detected ortho-phthalates in foods at 81% and 70% of samples, respectively. Di(2-ethylhexyl) terephthalate (DEHT, CAS 6422-86-2) “was the most frequently detected replacement plasticizer, [in 86% of samples] and was detected at much higher concentrations than other chemicals.” The authors claim, “to our knowledge these are the first reportable data of DEHT in fast food items.” 

Edwards and colleagues “obtained hamburgers, fries, chicken nuggets, chicken burritos, cheese pizza, and gloves from restaurants and analyzed them for 11 chemicals using gas chromatography mass spectrometry.” The analyzed chemicals included 8 phthalates and 3 plasticizers commonly used to replace phthalates in plastics. The authors “generally observed higher chemical concentrations in foods containing meat relative to other foods, such as cheese pizza.” The phthalates DnBP and DEHP were detected in all hamburgers sampled.  

The researchers collected and measured gloves as one source of potential contamination in the foods. Previous research has found phthalates in food-handling gloves (FPF reported). Of the three samples of gloves collected, the authors detected DEHT in all three and another replacement plasticizer in two. The two replacement plasticizers were also present in the food from the restaurants where the gloves were collected.  

The authors write that “the use of [replacement] chemicals in products does not guarantee their safety. The toxicity information for replacement plasticizers is limited… thus, the human health implications of chronic exposures to replacement plasticizers are poorly understood.” US Senator Dianne Feinstein referenced the new research in a tweet promoting the Preventing Harmful Exposure to Phthalates Act that she is cosponsoring in congress (FPF reported). Other recent research estimated the economic cost of phthalate exposure to US society to be $39-47 billion annually (FPF reported).   

Phthalates can also migrate into food even before it is packaged. The more processed a food item is, the more likely it contacts food processing equipment, which correspondingly increases the potential for containing chemical migrants. Phthalates have been measured in dairy farming equipment (FPF reported), and research on US cheese products found higher concentrations of phthalates in processed cheeses than unprocessed cheeses (FPF reported).  



Edwards, L., et al. (October 27, 2021). “Phthalate and novel plasticizer concentrations in food items from U.S. fast food chains: a preliminary analysis.” Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, DOI: 10.1038/s41370-021-00392-8 

Read More 

Laura Reiley (October 27, 2021). “Some fast-food items contain plastics linked to serious health problems, new report shows.” The Washington Post