Rubber gloves rub off on fast food, study finds | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 28.10.2021

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Rubber gloves rub off on fast food, study finds

Traces of toxic chemicals from vinyl gloves have been found in fast food in the US. Researchers say marginalized groups are at higher risk than others.

A boy and a girl squirt tomato sauce on burgers and fries

Kids love fast food — adults do, too — but toxic chemicals may be getting into burgers via vinyl gloves used in food preparation

Rubber gloves have become as ubiquitous as face masks. Where two years ago, your hairdresser or local café would have handled you and your rolls with bare skin, two years into this pandemic and many of us would shrink from an unsheathed hand.

And so it is in restaurant kitchens: Whether it's salads or hamburgers and fries, kitchen staff are most likely to wear gloves these days.

But while they may protect us from a viral infection, those same gloves could be slipping us toxic chemicals.

Those are the basic findings of a new study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.

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No such thing as non-toxic   

Let's take the scare out of the scare story, though — we know there are potentially toxic chemicals in various food chains.

Previous studies have investigated how microplastics in toothpaste end up in the oceans and then in the fish that we eat. That's on top of the shopping bags and food containers we dump in the environment.

Studies have looked at plastic packaging used by food producers and supermarkets. We know there's a problem.

But the authors of this latest study say few studies have looked at the transfer of chemicals from rubber (also known as vinyl) gloves to the food that is prepared in restaurants.

The trouble with phthalates

In a small, "preliminary" study, the researchers say they wanted to record the levels of ortho-phthalate and replacement plasticizers in foods and food handling gloves from US fast food restaurants.

Phthalates and replacement plasticizers are chemicals that get added to materials, such as the rubber in vinyl gloves, to make them more pliable or softer to the touch.

The researchers found significant traces of those chemicals in hamburgers, chicken nuggets, burritos and other fast foods — even though those chemicals are banned from other consumer goods.

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One phthalate known as DBP (also DnBP) has been used in PVC floor-coverings, adhesives and even printing ink. But it's been banned from use in child care products, toys and cosmetics because it's considered carcinogenic.

"We detected ortho-phthalates or replacement plasticizers in all food samples," write the study authors. "DnBP was the most frequently detected ortho-phthalate in foods at 81%."

They also detected DEHT, a plasticizer that's been introduced to replace more toxic chemicals, in both the gloves and food they studied. DEHT is used in bottle caps, conveyor belts, flooring materials and waterproof clothing.

A question of health equity

The researchers cite a project called TENDR, which "concluded that there is substantial evidence linking phthalate exposures to increased risks for children's learning, attention, and behavioral problems."

Pregnant women and communities of color may also be at higher risk of phthalate exposure.

There is evidence, write the researchers, that "chemical contamination of food may disproportionally impact marginalized groups." They call it an issue of health equity.

"Predominately Black areas in New York City have higher densities of fast food than predominately White areas, and high-income Black neighborhoods have similar exposure as low-income Black neighborhoods," they write.

Such "food landscapes" can influence a community's "dietary behavior," they say — what you can afford is what you eat.

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Research is still limited

It's not just through food, though. Some studies suggest kids are at risk of phthalate exposure when they stick pencils in their mouths and suck on the erasers.

Phthalate contamination can also leak into the environment from floor coverings and other materials when the weather gets hot. These materials are everywhere.

The research into the effects of phthalate and replacement plasticizers is picking up. This study is just one of at least two out this October.

Another one published earlier this month suggests that phthalates can be "associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality."

But scientists say that the knowledge and size of the studies is limited.

This most recent study into phthalates in fast food analyzed just 64 food samples and 3 pairs of gloves in one neighborhood near their lab in Texas, USA.

It's a call for broader and larger studies to come.

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