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A double cheeseburger and fries for dinner could mean increased exposure to potentially harmful chemicals called phthalates, but those chemicals also come from lots of other sources. 

Why it matters: 

Phthalates are a type of chemical commonly found in food packaging, and are also used in the production of fast food. There has been research to suggest that phthalates can leak out of that packaging and contaminate food. Phthalate exposure in utero and during early childhood has been linked to health problems in animal models. Particularly, phthalates seem to affect male reproductive development and fertility. Congress banned the use of the chemicals in children’s toys in 2008 because of those concerns.

The nitty gritty: 

Researchers from George Washington University looked at data from nearly 9,000 participants who reported their diet in the past 24 hours, including whether they’d eaten any fast food. Those participants also provided a urinary sample. The more fast food a participant had consumed, the higher the level of phthalates in their urine. People who ate the most fast food had nearly 40 percent higher levels of a type of phthalate called DiNP in their urine than people who hadn’t chowed down on any fast food in the past day. The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.


But keep in mind:

This exposure to phthalates, while concerning, isn’t anything uncommon. We are all exposed to phthalates, whether we like it or not,” said Vassilios Papadopoulos, a McGill University biochemist who has studied phthalate exposure. “You’re exposed when you drive, when you eat food, when you breathe.” He also noted that phthalate exposure is not currently a major concern for adults, since it has primarily been shown to create problems during early development.

Also important to note: The results can’t be tied completely to fast-food consumption. It’s possible that other sources of phthalate exposure contributed to the chemical levels in participants’ urine.


The bottom line:

Fast food consumption does seem to increase the level of phthalates in the body, but it’s not clear how different that exposure affects people, compared to other sources of phthalates.