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There is increasing concern over phthalates and BPA and their effects on human health. It turns out that a big source of phthalates (which are known endocrine disruptors) in humans may be fast food. A new study looked at fast food consumption by  8877 people and found that those who reported eating more of it in the past 24 hours had urinary phthalate levels as much as 40 percent higher than those who had eaten no fast food in the 24 hours before testing. In fact, it was dose-response relationship between fast food intake and exposure to phthalates - the more fast food, the higher the level of phthalates.

The researchers did not find an association between total fast food consumption and BPA. However, they did find an  association between fast food meat intake and BPA,  which corresponds to the small but growing evidence from other studies suggesting that hamburgers may be a source of BPA exposure.

These findings are of concern to all of us because phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) are widely used industrial chemicals that may adversely impact human health. Studies detect phthalates in 98% of the US population. They are found in a wide variety of products (including plastics and personal care products), and can enter the human body via ingestion, inhalation, and absorption through the skin. How are we exposed to them in fast food? Phthalates and BPA are typically found in food packaging and some leaches out into food. Some can also leach into food from dairy product tubing, in lid gaskets, food preparation gloves, conveyor belts, etc. Thus we ingest phthalates and BPA when we consume processed or packaged food. Fast food may be an especially important source of exposure to phthalates and BPA because it is highly processed, packaged, and handled.

Studies have demonstrated that the phthalates DEHP and DiNP are endocrine (hormone) disruptors, and that human exposure has been associated with adverse reproductive, neurobehavioral, and respiratory health effects. BPA is also an endocrine disruptor. We are all being exposed numerous ways, but the lower the levels, the better. The good news is that once in the body, phthalates and BPA are quickly metabolized and excreted in urine, with elimination half-lives of less than 24 hours. Thus you can quickly reduce the levels in your body. And you should try. From Science Daily:

Fast food may expose consumers to harmful chemicals called phthalates

People who reported consuming more fast food in a national survey were exposed to higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals known as phthalates, according to a study published by researchers at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University.

"People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher," says lead author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute SPH. "Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults."Phthalates belong to a class of industrial chemicals used to make food packaging materials, tubing for dairy products, and other items used in the production of fast food. Other research suggests these chemicals can leach out of plastic food packaging and can contaminate highly processed food.

Zota and her colleagues looked at data on 8,877 participants who had answered detailed questions about their diet in the past 24 hours, including consumption of fast food. These participants also had provided researchers with a urinary sample that could be tested for the breakdown products of two specific phthalates--DEHP and DiNP.

Zota and her colleagues found that the more fast food participants in the study ate the higher the exposure to phthalates. People in the study with the highest consumption of fast food had 23.8 percent higher levels of the breakdown product for DEHP in their urine sample. And those same fast food lovers had nearly 40 percent higher levels of DiNP metabolites in their urine compared to people who reported no fast food in the 24 hours prior to the testing. The researchers also discovered that grain and meat items were the most significant contributors to phthalate exposure. Zota says the grain category contained a wide variety of items including bread, cake, pizza, burritos, rice dishes and noodles.

In addition, the researchers also looked for exposure to another chemical found in plastic food packaging--Bisphenol A or BPA. Researchers also believe exposure to BPA can lead to health and behavior problems, especially for young children. This study found no association between total fast food intake and BPA. However, Zota and her colleagues found that people who ate fast food meat products had higher levels of BPA than people who reported no fast food consumption.

The studies are adding up that phthalates are harmful to humans of all ages, but uniquely so to the developing fetus. Boys exposed to high levels of phthalates before birth may have slightly altered genitals, specifically a shortened anogenital distance (the length between the anus and the genitals). This is concerning because in adulthood, this is associated with reduced semen quality and lower fertility in males - and considered a sign of incomplete masculinization. So try to avoid or lower exposure to phthalates during pregnancy (see posts on ENDOCRINE DISRUPTORS). From Environmental Health Perspectives:

Plastics chemical linked to changes in baby boys' genitals

Boys exposed in the womb to high levels of a chemical found in vinyl products are born with slightly altered genital development, according to research published today.The study of nearly 200 Swedish babies is the first to link the chemical di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP) to changes in the development of the human male reproductive tract.

Previous studies of baby boys in three countries found that a similar plastics chemical, DEHP, was associated with the same type of changes in their genitalia. Less is known about the reproductive risks of DiNP, a chemical which scientists say may be replacing DEHP in many products such as vinyl toys, flooring and packaging. In mice, high levels block testosterone and alter testicular development.

“Our data suggest that this substitute phthalate may not be safer than the chemical it is replacing,” wrote the researchers, led by Carl-Gustaf Bornehag at Sweden’s Karlstad University, in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Levels of DiNP in U.S. adults and children have more than doubled in the past decade.

The researchers measured metabolites of five phthalates in the urine of pregnant women during the first trimester. Development of male reproductive organs begins during that period, said senior study author Shanna Swan, a professor of reproductive science at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. The researchers then measured the anogenital distance – the length between the anus and the genitals – when the boys were on average 21 months old. Boys who had been exposed to the highest levels of DiNP in the womb averaged a distance that was slightly shorter – about seven-hundredths of an inch – than the boys with the lowest exposures. “These were really subtle changes,” Swan said.

Considered a sign of incomplete masculinization, shortened anogenital distance in men has been associated with abnormal testicular development and reduced semen quality and fertility. In men, this measurement is typically 50 to 100 percent longer than in women. But it’s unknown whether a slightly shorter distance in infants corresponds with any fertility problems later in life.

For other phthalates, the study found shorter anogenital distance with higher concentrations, but the findings were not statistically significant, meaning they may have been due to chance. The Swedish women in the new study had phthalate levels similar to U.S. women in Swan's previous studies. Those studies, published in 2005 and 2008, linked several phthalates to shorter anogenital distance.

The scientists said exposures to the chemical can come from food or through skin contact with home furnishings or child-care articles. In 2008, the United States temporarily banned use of DiNP and two other phthalate plasticizers in toys and other children's products.... While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate exposure to phthalates, Swan suggested that pregnant women may be able to reduce their exposures by incorporating unprocessed, unpackaged foods into the diet and by avoiding heating or storing foods in plastic containers.