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A new study has found that eating at restaurants and fast food chains may increase levels of phthalates – chemicals used to increase the flexibility and durability of plastic – in the body (gross!). Scientists discovered a 35 percent increase in levels of the chemical in those who dined at a restaurant the previous day than other participants.

Phthalates are potentially harmful hormone-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to asthma, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, and fertility issues. As binding agents, they are frequently used in food packaging and found in a number of other products, including flooring, adhesives, soaps, and shampoos. In the U.S., some forms of the chemical have been banned from children’s products.

To arrive at the findings, now published in the journal Environment International, scientists analyzed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected between 2005 and 2014, the Guardian reports. A total of 10,253 people were asked what they ate and where their food came from the previous 24 hours. Levels of phthalate biomarkers were measured in each participant’s urine.

“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,” said researcher Dr. Ami Zota from George Washington University in Washington, DC. “Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important, and previously under-recognized, source of exposure to phthalates for the U.S. population.”

The connection between eating out and high levels of the chemicals were found to be especially strong for teenagers. Teens who ate at fast food outlets often had 55 percent higher levels of phthalates than adolescents eating at home.

“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,” warned Dr. Julia Varshavsky from the University of California at Berkeley, lead author of the study. “Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply.”

We know that plastic particles can leach into food from its packaging overtime or if it is heated. Unfortunately, food in restaurants can be shipped in from across the country, likely in plastic wrapping or stored in plastic bins while in the facility. Many people believe that wrapping food in plastic is vital to ensure its safety to consumers, but if phthalate exposure is a potential side-effect of this method, are we really helping to keep people healthy after all?

While there is much more research that needs to be done to track down the source of phthalates in food, we can all work to minimize our exposure by avoiding plastics in our life – especially at meal times. To learn more about how to grocery shop plastic-free and other tips to cut plastic from your life, check out One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign. 

Image source: pokpok/Flickr

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