Phthalate and novel plasticizer concentrations in food items from U.S. fast food chains: a preliminary analysis

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Journal of exposure science & environmental epidemiology








Dietary exposures; Fast food; Food handling gloves; Health disparities; Phthalates; Plasticizers


BACKGROUND: Fast food consumption is associated with biomarkers of ortho-phthalates exposures. However, the chemical content of fast food is unknown; certain ortho-phthalates (i.e., di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP) and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)) have been phased out and replaced with other plasticizers (e.g., dioctyl terephthalate (DEHT)). OBJECTIVE: We conducted a preliminary study to examine ortho-phthalate and replacement plasticizer concentrations in foods and food handling gloves from U.S. fast food restaurants. METHODS: We obtained hamburgers, fries, chicken nuggets, chicken burritos, cheese pizza (n = 64 food samples) and gloves (n = 3) from restaurants and analyzed them for 11 chemicals using gas chromatography mass spectrometry. RESULTS: We found DEHT at the highest concentrations in both foods (n = 19; median = 2510 µg/kg; max = 12,400 µg/kg) and gloves (n = 3; range: 28-37% by weight). We detected DnBP and DEHP in 81% and 70% of food samples, respectively. Median DEHT concentrations were significantly higher in burritos than hamburgers (6000 µg/kg vs. 2200 µg/kg; p < 0.0001); DEHT was not detected in fries. Cheese pizza had the lowest levels of most chemicals. SIGNIFICANCE: To our knowledge, these are the first measurements of DEHT in food. Our preliminary findings suggest that ortho-phthalates remain ubiquitous and replacement plasticizers may be abundant in fast food meals. IMPACT STATEMENT: A selection of popular fast food items sampled in this study contain detectable levels of replacement plasticizers and concerning ortho-phthalates. In addition, food handling gloves contain replacement plasticizers, which may be a source of food contamination. These results, if confirmed, may inform individual and regulatory exposure reduction strategies.


Environmental and Occupational Health