Inspiring an International Dialog on a New Danger from Fast Food

Over the past month, people throughout the world have learned that, as Newsweek told its readers, if you’re eating fast food, you’re probably also eating environmental chemicals known as phthalates.  Or, as FOX News put it, the next time you add fries to your burger, you may also be adding extra chemicals.  

These stories and more than 770 others, by outlets including NBC News, CNN, and the Today Show, were inspired by EOH Assistant Professor Ami Zota’s research linking fast food consumption with human uptake of phthalates, chemicals used to make plastic more flexible that have been linked with serious health concerns. Her coauthors are Global Environmental Health (GEH) MPH Alumna Cassie Phillips, who worked on the research as her Culminating Experience Project, and EOH Research Associate Susanna Mitro. 

The research, published in the prestigious journal Environmental Health Perspectives, documented that people who ate more fast food in a 24-hour period had higher levels of two substances that occur when phthalates break down in the body. The Milken Institute of Public Health’s analysis showed that the media coverage of the article extended to an audience of nearly 650 million people. 

The robust research findings merit media attention and thoughtful consumer action. As Zota told the Washington Post’s WonkBlog: "We're not trying to create paranoia or anxiety, but I do think our findings are striking….  It's not every day that you conduct a study where the results are this strong."

In the Newsweek article, Zota explained: “Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults. An article in TIME magazine included Zota’s observation that “the same range of concentrations measured in this [group] overlaps with the range of concentrations that have been measured in some of epidemiological studies that find adverse health effects.” 

As Zota explained to Reuter’s Health news service, in a story picked up by many other media outlets, phthalates used in food packaging can leach into highly processed fast foods.  Men’s Journal’s coverage pointed out that no restrictions currently exist on the use of phthalates in materials that come in contact with food, even though this group of chemicals is under serious review by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, as well as in the European Union.

The article in Voice of America noted the observations by Zota and her colleagues that “grain and meat items were the most significant contributors to phthalate exposure.” These included bread, cake, pizza, burritos, rice dishes and noodles, the researchers said.

Research in rats has shown that phthalates can disrupt the male reproductive system, and Bloomberg’s coverage pointed out that there’s evidence for similar effects in humansSTAT reminded readers that Congress banned the use of phthalates chemicals in children’s toys in 2008 because of those concerns. 

CNN’s coverage noted that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a report in 2013 stating that high levels of exposure to phthalates could lead to adverse reproductive outcomes in women. Research has linked these chemicals with increased risk of fibroids and endometriosis, which can cause infertility, and reduced IQ and behavioral problems in children exposed in the womb. High phthalate levels have also been linked with diabetes risk in women and adolescents.

The findings can be seen in a positive light, in that they give provide information about a source of exposure to phthalates that people can control, Zota told CNN. "There are increasing recommendations from scientific and clinical bodies suggesting the general population and vulnerable populations like pregnant women reduce their exposure to phthalates, but up to now there have been very few sources that people can have control of," she said.  “The results suggest that if you as an individual want to limit your chemical exposures, one potential way to do that is limiting fast food and processed food,” as she explained in Reuters Health. 

Discovery News observed that both California and the European Union, for example, restrict the usage of one of the two phthalates reported in Zota’s study, DiNP, which is a possible carcinogen, in various products.

The National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus article about the study pointed out that Zota and her GW colleagues also looked for exposure to another chemical found in plastic food packaging -- bisphenol A (BPA). The investigators found no association between fast-food intake and BPA, but people who ate fast-food meat products had higher levels of BPA than people who reported no fast-food consumption.

The research is attention-getting, Civil Eats’ article about Zota’s work noted, because Americans eat a lot of fast food.  According to a 2013 Gallup poll, eight in 10 Americans report eating at fast food restaurants at least monthly; almost half of the people polled said they eat it at least weekly.

Other publications that covered Zota’s research include U.S. News and World Report, Teen Vogue, Forbes, Salon, The Star (UK), Yahoo News in France, Huffington Post (UK edition), ChemTrust (UK) and The Daily Mail online.