What Are Phthalates? Eating At Restaurants Can Increase Your Exposure, A Study Says, But Here's Why You Shouldn't Worry

Hannah Burton / Bustle

Going out to eat every once in a while is a treat for pretty much anybody, but a new study reports that there could be a surprising health risk involved. Published in Environmental Journal on Wednesday, the study reports that eating at restaurants a lot may up your risk of exposure to potentially harmful, hormone-disrupting phthalates. According to a recent press release, the study is the first of its kind, and compares phthalate exposure between those who eat out a lot, and those who eat meals and snacks mainly at home. Those who eat out regularly at fast food places, restaurants, and cafeterias were found to have phthalate levels a whopping 35 percent higher than those who primarily nosh on food purchased from a grocery store. This all sounds pretty ominous, and annoying to those who love dining out, but still, you shouldn't worry about it *too* much.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phthalates are a kind of chemical that's used to make plastic harder to break and more pliable. Phthalates are in used in tons of products, from clothes like rain coats, to personal hygiene products like shampoo and soap. Phthalates are also found in medical devices, cosmetics, and even children’s toys (though some phthalates are now banned in the U.S. and Europe). Phthalates have been found to cause liver, kidney, and reproductive damage in animal studies, though the effects of low level exposure in humans is unknown. The CDC also reports that people get exposed to them by consuming food and drinks that have come in contact with phthalate containing materials — like those found in food processing equipment, commercial food containers, beverage cups, take-out boxes, and food prep gloves.

Lisa Lake/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

According to the press release, senior study author Ami Zota stated that “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.” Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, also noted, “Our findings suggest that dining out may be an important, and previously under-recognized source of exposure to phthalates for the U.S. population.”

Zota and her colleagues used data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHNES) gathered between 2005 and 2014. As part of NHNES, over 10,000 volunteers across different age groups provided urine samples and food diaries tracking everything they’d eaten the day before — phthalates stay in our bodies for about 24 hours, so researchers were able to assess participants’ level of exposure from the previous day. The research team found that children and teens were the most affected populations; children had the highest levels of phthalates in their systems, while the greatest difference in phthalate levels between those who dine in and those who eat out were seen amongst teens.

The Guardian notes that lead study author Dr. Julia Varshavsky, a postdoctoral scientist from the University of California at Berkeley, said “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.” In order to reduce and the risks associated with phthalate exposure, preparing food at home as much as possible, while reducing the consumption of plastics overall, is key. Varshavsky also suggested that “Future studies should investigate the most effective interventions to remove phthalates from the food supply.”

While it's good to be aware of the risks involved, don't be afraid to eat out in moderation. If you make it a point to make meals at home when you can, and avoid plastics when possible, you'll be doing a lot to reduce your phthalate exposure and protect your health — while still enjoying weekend brunch or a night out from time to time.