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Study: Fast Food Found to Contain Harmful Chemicals

FILE - A partially eaten hamburger is seen atop a portion of French fries.
FILE - A partially eaten hamburger is seen atop a portion of French fries.

Fast food is known to be calorific, salty, sugary and fattening, and now new research says its consumption may expose people to certain chemicals also found in plastics.

Researchers at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University say people who eat fast food may be exposed to high levels of harmful chemicals called phthalates, which have been linked to health problems, particularly damage to the reproductive system and possible infertility.

Phthalates are added to many kinds of food packaging, particularly plastics, because they increase flexibility, transparency and durability. Studies have shown they can leach out of the packaging materials and into food.

"People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher," says lead author Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute SPH. "Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults."

For the study, researchers gathered data on nearly 9,000 people who answered questions about what they had eaten over the past 24 hours. Subjects were also asked to provide a urine sample to measure levels of phthalates.

Subjects who reported having the most fast food also had higher phthalate levels.

The researchers noted that “grain and meat items were the most significant contributors to phthalate exposure.” These included bread, cake, pizza, burritos, rice dishes and noodles, they said.

Another chemical commonly found in food packaging, Bisphenol A or BPA, was also higher among those who ate more fast food. BPA has also been linked to health issues.

Phthalates have been the subject of controversy before. In 2008, Congress banned their use in children’s toys due to concerns over their safety.