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A new study in the journal Environmental International analyzed exposure of phthalates in the United States population. Phthalates are chemicals that disrupt androgen hormones (such as testosterone) across one’s lifespan. They are implicated in a number of hormone-related medical conditions: reproductive issues, diabetes, neurodevelopmental problems, fetal sex differentiation, cancer, poor sperm quality, and obesity. The scope of phthalate exposure is significant. The total estimated cost of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is $340 billion in the United States alone, with phthalates being the second-leading driver.

Dietary sources are the highest contributor to phthalate exposure. The molecules originate from plastic, recycled cardboard, personal care products, and PVC piping, but they also work their way into dietary fats (i.e. meat and dairy), grains, and spices.  

Because phthalates enter food by way of processing and storage in plastic, the study authors suspected that eating more food away from home would contribute to higher phthalate exposure, so they analyzed dietary intake from CDC data collected between 2005 and 2014 for 10,253 subjects greater than 6 years old. They compared this dietary intake to urinary phthalate data.  

The authors found that phthalate exposure was an average of 35 percent  higher among subjects who ate food away from home compared to those who ate only at home. The highest consumers of food away from home had a 74 percent higher exposure than those who ate only at home. Higher exposure was also correlated with:

  • Hispanic and white males compared to black males
  • Underweight compared to normal weight
  • Higher poverty
  • Lower education
  • Evening rather than morning
  • Children compared to adolescents and adults

The study authors make special note that the exposure was 50 to 70 percent higher for children than for all other age groups, and that children ate more cafeteria food than other age groups. This fact could also be explained by metabolic differences, the fact that children eat more food per unit of body weight, that they eat more processed/packaged snacks, and that they may orally ingest more personal care products.  

For adolescents and young adults, the highest exposure source was fast food and restaurants. Adolescents had 55 percent higher anti-androgen levels if they had eaten out the day prior. Eating sandwiches (especially burgers) away from home was associated with 30 percent higher androgen-disruptor levels. Pizza and fried potatoes consumed away from home were also associated with higher levels.  

The authors summarize that, across the study population, there was a positive association between eating out and daily phthalate intake. Cafeterias, fast food, pre-packaged food, and full-service restaurants are all important contributors to anti-androgen exposure. The authors note that exposure sources are numerous and complex, and that phthalates accumulate in dietary fats. Thus, some ways to reduce phthalate exposure include:

  • Buy local, organic, fresh food as much as possible
  • Source quality meat and dairy
  • Prepare food at home rather than dining out as much as possible
  • For children, pack school lunches from home, and avoid providing pre-packaged foods/snacks.  
  • Use only phthalate-free personal care products, especially for children
  • Bring home-cooked leftovers for lunch rather than eating out
  • Avoid cooking or storing food in plastic containers or plastic wrap
  • Drink beverages from glass containers rather than plastic bottles (i.e. bottled water and plastic-covered coffee cups)