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Eating out increases levels of phthalates in the body, study finds

US research discovers 35% increase in levels of chemical linked to disease in those who dined at restaurants the previous day

Patrick Greenfield and agencies

A burger and fries
Burgers and sandwiches were linked to higher phthalate levels in the research, but only if purchased at a restaurant or cafe. Photograph: Getty/iStockphoto

Eating at restaurants and fast food chains may increase exposure to potentially harmful hormone-disrupting chemicals used to increase the flexibility and durability of plastic, a study has found.

Researchers investigating levels of phthalates in the human body, which have been linked to asthma, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and fertility issues in the past few years, were found to be nearly 35% higher in participants who had eaten out the previous day compared with those who stayed at home.

Phthalates are binding agents frequently used in food packaging as well as a number of other products including flooring, adhesives soaps and shampoos, and some forms of the chemical have been banned from children’s products in the US.

Certain foods, including burgers and sandwiches, were linked to higher phthalate levels in the study, but only if purchased at a fast-food outlet, restaurant or cafe.

The association was especially strong for teenagers, researchers found. Adolescents who frequently ate at fast-food outlets while out with their friends had 55% higher levels of the chemicals than young people eating at home.

Researcher Dr Ami Zota, from George Washington University in Washington DC, said: “This study suggests food prepared at home is less likely to contain high levels of phthalates, chemicals linked to fertility problems, pregnancy complications and other health issues.

“Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important, and previously under-recognised, source of exposure to phthalates for the US population.”

The scientists analysed data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected between 2005 and 2014.

A total of 10,253 people were asked to recall what they ate and where their food came from over the previous 24 hours. Levels of phthalate biomarkers were measured in each participant’s urine.

Of the whole group, 61% reported dining out the previous day. The association between phthalate exposure and dining out was significant across all age groups, but especially strong for young people, said the researchers.

The findings are reported in the journal Environment International.

Lead author Dr Julia Varshavsky, from the University of California at Berkeley, said: “Pregnant women, children and teens are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals, so it’s important to find ways to limit their exposures.

“Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply.”

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