WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked last weekend that the Food and Drug Administration investigate the use of phthalates, a toxic chemical used to make plastic more flexible, in fast-food packaging.
Phthalates have been linked to various developmental and reproductive problems and can be found in packaging for burgers, subs, fries and drinks, as well as a host of hygiene products and other items. The EU has limited the use of four types of phthalates in consumer products, while the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has limited use of six phthalates found in toys and children’s items for sleep aid, feeding, sucking and teething.
In a letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, Schumer cited a 2014 study from JAMA Pediatrics that links premature birth with phthalate levels found in a mother’s urine. The New York lawmaker also cited 2013 findings from New York University pediatric and environmental researchers that linked high levels of phthalates to increased “insulin resistance” in young adolescents.
“To think that we have all this data on phthalate chemicals from doctors, scientists, health experts and other industries just sitting around, frozen like a beef patty and begging for the FDA to take it to the next appropriate level of scrutiny is worrisome for the consumer,” Schumer said in a statement. “The studies are clear: the link between these chemicals does have an impact on the body, and not a very good one.”
Other studies have shown that those who often consume fast food have higher levels of phthalates in their systems, Schumer added. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded phthalate levels in two different populations between 2003 and 2010. According to the CDC, “one-third of the participants who consumed a large amount of fast food in the last 24 hours showed two types of phthalates, DEHP and DiNP, at levels 23.8 percent and 39 percent, respectively.” Participants consuming less fast food recorded DEHP and DiNP levels of 15.5 percent and 24.8 percent.
Danielle Nierenberg, president and founder of the nonprofit Food Tank, noted in an interview Wednesday that the individuals most at risk for phthalate exposure and digestion are those found in low-income populations, because they are the ones consuming fast food on a regular basis. Her organization focuses on access and affordability of high-quality food in America.
“The people who are going to be most affected by fast food are often the poorest people because it’s what they can afford,” she said. “It’s what’s most available in their communities. If fast food is a big part of your diet, and these chemicals are in these containers and wrappers, then that’s the biggest concern. … If they’re consuming them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then that’s a real problem. For most of us, it’s not going to be, because our diets don’t depend entirely on cheap food sources.”
A 2014 study from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Arizona State University found that fast-food companies predominantly target low-income populations in urban and rural settings. The researchers concluded that communities characterized as majority African-American, middle-income and rural are disproportionately exposed to fast-food marketing strategies. And according to the study, about 30 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 11 and more than 40 percent of the 12-19 age group consume fast-food products on a daily basis.
The CDC has noted that more research is needed to determine the full impact of phthalates on human health, though exposure is considered “widespread” in the U.S. According to the CDC, adult women show higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for phthalates found in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics and other hygiene products.