skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Sarah Janssen’s Blog

What's for lunch? Likely a few hormone-disrupting chemicals - phthalates and BPA

Sarah Janssen

Posted February 27, 2013

, , , , ,
Share | | |

You can’t see it, smell it or taste it.  It isn’t on the label or ingredient list - but a new study out today confirms that food is a major source of exposure to chemicals found in plastics.

The study measured 10 family’s exposure to phthalates and BPA - chemicals added to plastic and commonly used in food processing and packaging. The study found a surprising and disappointing result – even when you try, it isn’t so easy to eat food free of plastic additives

The study, published in a peer reviewed scientific journal, supplied half the families with fresh, local and organic foods that didn’t come into contact with plastic during preparation or storage. They measured phthalate and BPA metabolites in the participant’s urine before, during and after the diet changes. A previous study found that similar simple changes in diet could markedly reduce exposure to these chemicals after just a few days.

However, this study found something quite different and surprising.   

In this new study, after 5 days the new diet substantially increased exposure to one phthalate, DEHP, and slightly increased BPA exposure.  Levels of DEHP metabolites increased 25-fold with the 5 day intervention and then returned to baseline levels when the participants went back to their regular diets. Children in the study had higher levels of DEHP exposure with the diet change than the adults, and in fact, their exposure was over 9 times higher than recommended by US EPA!

Phthalates such as DEHP are of concern because they interfere with the synthesis of the male sex hormone, testosterone, and exposure has been associated with birth defects of male genitals and later in life, poor sperm quality and infertility.

The other half of participants received only written dietary advice about how to reduce exposure to phthalates and BPA. There was no change in their exposure though it wasn’t clear how closely they adhered to the advice.

Based on the startling increase in phthalate exposures with the diet change, the researchers then tested the phthalate concentrations in the foods fed to the participants.  They found that dairy products (butter, cream, milk, and cheese) and spices (ground cinnamon, cayenne pepper and ground coriander) had high levels of DEHP.  These foods likely contributed to the increase in exposure that was observed. 

How does DEHP get into food?

DEHP and dozens of other phthalates have been approved as food additives since the 1960s by the FDA. They can be used in many types of equipment used in food processing including tubing, gloves, conveyor belts, lids, packaging, plastic wraps, adhesives and inks.   

If you think about all the processing that milk goes through from the time it leaves the cow until it is put in the milk bottle, it comes into contact with a lot of tubing and other plastic parts that could leach fat-loving DEHP molecules into milk.  In clinical medicine, we already know that PVC tubing can contain high amounts of DEHP and when DEHP tubing comes into contact with fatty liquids, significant amounts of DEHP leach into the liquid. Even FDA has recognized this for medical devices. Milk and other dairy products come into contact with a lot of plastic tubing during processing which could explain why they are contaminated with DEHP. 

However, it isn’t obvious how spices could become so highly contaminated with the chemical.  

Why are the results of this study are so different from the previous dietary intervention study?

There isn’t an obvious explanation. It could be because the foods fed to the participants were very different and contained different levels of phthalates. The previous study did not measure the levels of phthalates in the study food so we can’t be sure how much was in them.

Should we conclude that eating a bland diet free of dairy products will reduce everyone’s exposure to phthalates?  Probably not and it would be pretty boring. 

Wouldn't it be better if the FDA was on top of this and could tell us which foods are most contaminated with phthalates?  Don't hold your breath.  FDA has not done any testing of the food supply for these chemicals and hasn’t kept track of who is using them since they were first approved for food contact use over 50 years ago.  

What we really need is for the FDA to do their job of protecting public health and ensuring all food is safe by revoking approval of of harmful chemicals currently used as food additives.

As demonstrated in this study, the current levels of exposure are not safe. DEHP exposure has been associated with a wide range of health effects in animal and even some human studies. Since there has not been any comprehensive testing of food in the U.S. for these chemicals, we can’t be sure which foods are the most highly contaminated.

Eliminating their use would take the guesswork out of a trip down the grocery store aisle and would have significant public health impacts.

While NRDC continues to press the FDA to act, here are a few things you can do to reduce your exposure:

To reduce your exposure to BPA:

  • Don't use polycarbonate plastics (marked with a #7 PC) for storing food or beverages, especially if you are pregnant, nursing or the food or drink is for an infant or young child.
  • Avoid canned beverages, foods and soups, especially if pregnant or feeding young children. Choose frozen vegetables and soups and broth that come in glass jars or in aseptic "brick" cartons, as these containers are BPA-free.
  • Use a BPA-free reusable water bottle, such as an unlined stainless steel bottle.
  • Don’t allow your dentist to apply dental sealants made from BPA (or BADGE) to either yours or your child's teeth. Ask your dentist to provide BPA-free treatments.

Here are a few tips for avoiding phthalates:

  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less fat.  Doesn’t your doctor tell you do this anyway? DEHP has been found to be higher in fatty foods so cutting back might remove some exposure.
  •  Use unscented or fragrance free products. This includes air fresheners.  NRDC did air freshener testing and found 12 of 14 brands contained at least one phthalate.
  • Look on the label for cosmetics that say "phthalate free" or check the list of companies that have pledged not to use phthalates.
  • Phthalates collect on dust particles.  Do frequent dusting but use a damp cloth or wet mop to prevent the dust particles from becoming airborne. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Avoid buying PVC based products that are likely to be treated with phthalates - this includes most "vinyl" products. You can identify PVC in packaging by looking for the  #3 and/or the letters V or PVC inside or underneath the recycling symbol.  As my friends at CHEJ say - "Just remember bad news comes in 3’s, don’t buy PVC."
Share | | |


ginaFeb 28 2013 03:57 PM

Where is the list you referred to of the cosmetic companies to have pledge to be phthalate?

Marian FeinbergMar 3 2013 04:02 PM

You say"Choose ...broth that comes in... aseptic "brick" cartons, as these containers are BPA-free. However I have heard that these "tetra paks" do have BPA. Could you clarify? Thanks.

P.S. Gina. You can find that information at

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In