The invisible dangers of phthalates: how plastic chemicals affect our health

a man sitting at a table and eating street food


When we enjoy a refreshing can of soda or a quick bite from our favorite fast-food chain, we rarely think about the hidden dangers lurking in these products. A recent report from Consumer Reports reveals that phthalates, chemicals used to make plastic flexible and durable, are widely present in our food, especially in fast food and beverages. These chemicals can have serious health consequences. In this article, we delve deeper into what phthalates are, how they affect our bodies, and what measures we can take to reduce our exposure.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly used in the production of plastic. They make plastic more flexible and durable, which is useful for a wide range of applications, from food packaging to toys. Common types of phthalates include di-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP). However, these substances can easily leach out of plastic and into our food.

Phthalates in Fast Food and beverages

Consumer Reports has discovered that phthalates are present in almost all tested food items, particularly in fast food and beverages. Here are some concerning findings:

  • Fast Food: High levels of phthalates were found in Wendy’s Crispy Chicken Nuggets, Chipotle Chicken Burrito, and a Burger King Whopper with cheese. Even popular chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell had products with significant amounts of phthalates.
  • Beverages: Phthalates were also found in various drinks, including Brisk Iced Tea Lemon and Coca-Cola. Even bottled water from Poland Spring contained measurable amounts of phthalates.

Safety levels of phthalates

Currently, there are no established safe levels for phthalates in food by many regulatory agencies such as the FDA. However, studies suggest that even low levels of exposure can be harmful, especially because the effects can be cumulative and these chemicals can build up in the body over time. Here are some general guidelines based on research into the effects of phthalates:

  • Low risk exposure: Less than 1000 nanograms per day
  • Moderate risk exposure: Between 1000 and 10,000 nanograms per day
  • High risk exposure: More than 10,000 nanograms per day

Comparison of Phthalates in Beverages

Let’s compare the phthalate levels in the beverages from the list with these guidelines:

  • Brisk Iced Tea Lemon (can): 7,467 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Coca-Cola Original (plastic): 6,167 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Lipton Diet Green Tea Citrus (plastic): 4,433 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Poland Spring 100% Natural Spring Water (plastic): 4,217 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Juicy Juice 100% Juice Apple (plastic): 3,348 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Pepsi Cola (can): 2,938 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Juicy Juice 100% Juice Apple (cardboard box): 2,260 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Gatorade Frost Thirst Quencher Glacier Freeze (plastic): 1,752 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Polar Seltzer Raspberry Lime (can): 0 nanograms
    • Low risk exposure (no phthalates detected)

Most beverages on the list contain phthalates in amounts that fall within the moderate risk exposure category, which is concerning because daily consumption of such drinks can increase cumulative exposure to phthalates. Even at moderate levels, the health effects of phthalates can accumulate over time, leading to hormonal disruptions and other health issues. It is therefore advisable to be more conscious of consuming products packaged in plastic and, where possible, choose alternatives with lower or no detectable levels of phthalates.

Safety Levels of Phthalates in Fast Food

Let’s compare the phthalate levels in the fast food products from the list with these guidelines:

  • Wendy’s Crispy Chicken Nuggets (paperboard): 33,980 nanograms
    • High risk exposure
  • Moe’s Southwest Grill Chicken Burrito (aluminum foil): 24,330 nanograms
    • High risk exposure
  • Chipotle Chicken Burrito (aluminum foil): 20,579 nanograms
    • High risk exposure
  • Burger King Whopper With Cheese (paper): 20,167 nanograms
    • High risk exposure
  • Burger King Chicken Nuggets (paper bag): 19,782 nanograms
    • High risk exposure
  • Wendy’s Dave’s Single With Cheese (aluminum foil/paper wrap): 19,520 nanograms
    • High risk exposure
  • McDonald’s Quarter Pounder With Cheese (cardboard): 9,956 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure (on the high end)
  • Wendy’s Natural-Cut French Fries (paperboard): 8,876 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Burger King Classic French Fries (paperboard): 8,512 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets (cardboard): 8,030 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Little Caesars Classic Cheese Pizza (cardboard box): 5,703 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • McDonald’s French Fries (paperboard): 5,538 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • McDonald’s Quarter Pounder Hamburger Patty (varied): 5,428 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Taco Bell Chicken Burrito (paper wrap): 4,720 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Domino’s Hand Tossed Cheese Pizza (cardboard box): 4,356 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Wendy’s Dave’s Single Hamburger Patty (varied): 3,629 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Burger King Whopper Hamburger Patty (varied): 2,870 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure
  • Pizza Hut Original Cheese Pan Pizza (cardboard box): 2,718 nanograms
    • Moderate risk exposure

Most fast food products on this list contain phthalates in amounts that fall within the high risk exposure category, which is highly concerning given the potential health risks. Even the products that fall within the moderate risk exposure category contain phthalates in amounts that can be harmful over time due to cumulative exposure.

Health effects of phthalates

Phthalates can cause serious health problems because they act as endocrine disruptors. Here are some key health risks associated with phthalates:

  • Hormonal disruption:
    • Phthalates can mimic or block the actions of hormones such as estrogens and androgens, leading to reproductive issues like reduced fertility and developmental problems in children.
  • Developmental and reproductive problems:
    • Exposure to phthalates during pregnancy can lead to birth defects, preterm birth, and low birth weight.
  • Metabolic disorders:
    • There is a link between phthalate exposure and increased risk of obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes.
  • Cancer risk:
    • Some phthalates are possibly carcinogenic, and prolonged exposure to high levels can increase the risk of certain cancers.

Symptoms of phthalate exposure

Symptoms of phthalate exposure can vary, but common symptoms and health problems include:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles and reduced sperm production in men.
  • Early puberty in children.
  • Weight gain and obesity.
  • Difficulty regulating blood sugar levels, which can lead to diabetes.
  • Skin rashes and irritation from contact with phthalate-containing products.

How to reduce your exposure

While it is difficult to completely avoid exposure to phthalates, here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Use glass or stainless steel containers:
    • Avoid using plastic food containers, especially for hot or acidic foods.
  • Read product labels:
    • Choose products labeled as “phthalate-free.”
  • Avoid scented products:
    • Many perfumes and scented candles contain phthalates.
  • Ventilate your living space:
    • Ensure good ventilation in your home to reduce the accumulation of phthalates from furniture, carpets, and other sources.

Phthalates are widespread in our food, especially in fast food and beverages, and can pose serious health risks. By being more aware of the sources of phthalates and taking steps to reduce exposure, we can protect our health from these harmful chemicals. Further protection requires stricter regulations and actions from both the industry and consumers to reduce the use of phthalates in food packaging and other products.