Phthalates in Food Harmful, Hard to Avoid

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Synthetic softening agents called phthalates are in tens of thousands of products people use every day, and they are helpful, but there is one thing that they should not be in: food. Yet a new study finds that phthalates, which have been linked with serious health problems, are not only in our food but that they are difficult to avoid.

Phthalates are a type of industrial chemical used in the manufacture of plastics. The synthetics industry uses about five million tons of phthalates every year. They are found in products ranging from food packaging to hoses, shower curtains, cosmetics, medical products, wall coverings, detergents, nail polish, shampoo, toys, and adhesives. Although phthalates are not used in food processing, they get into the food chain from a variety of sources, including the water, air, harvesting machines, conveyer belts that move food, food containers, and packaging, among others.

According to the Environmental Working Group, phthalates can disrupt the endocrine system, resulting in reduce sperm counts, testicular atrophy, and structural damage to the reproductive systems of male test animals. Some studies have also linked phthalates to liver cancer. The US Environmental Protection Agency has regulated the levels of phthalates as water and air pollutants.

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The new study, which was conducted at the Institute of Environmental Decisions along with the Institute of Chemistry and Bioengineering at ETH Zurich, found that even people who eat a so-called healthy diet - lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and minimal foods that contain chemical additives - may be ingesting even more phthalates than people who do not worry about their diet.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers polled about 1,200 people about their eating habits. Four characteristic groups were identified from among the study participants: people who ate healthy consciously and naturally, people who ate consciously and took supplements, people who did not worry about their food, and people who consumed a very high amount of sugary and fatty foods.

The researchers used existing data on phthalate levels in foods when evaluating the current participants’ answers. They found that people who consumed a healthy, natural diet ingested most of some phthalates, while people who did not worry about their food consumed the least. The results of the two healthy conscious groups and the fat-sugar group were similar. Overall, however, none of the participants ingested levels of phthalates that even came close to the tolerance levels issued by the European Food Safety Agency.

The study’s authors note that consumers should still focus on fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet because the health benefits are significant. They also note that their findings highlight the importance of controlling food production to minimize exposure to phthalates. Consumers can become more aware of the presence of phthalates in the environment and try to minimize their exposure as much as possible, even if only in small ways. Some teething rings for infants, for example, contain phthalates, and should be avoided. Read ingredients and look for phthalates by their chemical names or abbreviations, such as DBP (di-n-butylphthalate) and DEP (diethylphthalate), which are found in personal care products; and DMP (dimethylphthalate) found in insect repellent and some plastics.

SOURCES:
Environmental Working Group website
Pollution in People website
Science Daily, September 28, 2009

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