Chemicals linked to health problems found in fast food

ATLANTA — It is a part of most of our lives: fast food.

Channel 2 Action News has learned about a secret ingredient found in a lot of it that affects everyone, especially African Americans.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Sophia Choi met Jessica Fluker at a Clayton County shopping center in Morrow right after she bought her 4-year-old daughter Jada some fast-food chicken nuggets – one of the many items tested for phthalates and other chemicals used in plastic.

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“To know these new results is very, very alarming. And it’s something I want to do more research on,” Fluker said.

That researcher might lead her to an October 2021 study by George Washington University which was published in the “Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.”

It concludes the chemicals are a widespread problem.

“All the different food handling and processing equipment that food is processed on so, conveyor belts, industrial tubing, all of those things could be sources of the phthalates and the chemicals,” said Lariah Edwards, Ph.D. a postdoctoral research scientist at George Washington University who worked on the study.

It also found the chemicals typically used to make plastics more flexible in gloves and packaging.

Researchers believe they seep into the food.

Decades of studies show phthalates can cause a whole list of health problems.

“Reproductive problems in men like infertility and decreased sperm count. There’s also problems with neurodevelopmental issues and children,” said Edwards.


Researchers tested 64 items from various restaurants. They found 81% contained phthalates, 86% had a replacement plasticizer in it.

Items with meat had more. Chicken burritos and cheeseburgers had the most.

“If you want to reduce your exposure you could eat lower on the food chain. Grab a salad. Grab something without meat in it. But we also recognize that’s not an option for a lot of people. You know, fast food is a cheap alternative for a meal and not everybody can, you know, eliminate that from their diet. So, it really goes back to regulation in terms of protecting everybody,” Edwards said.

Certain ethnic groups eat more fast food due to food deserts and other factors.

“Primarily, Black Americans eat more fast food. And there are countless reasons for this linking back to racial discrimination and housing discrimination. So, there are these areas where fast food restaurants are heavier. They’re more dense in certain areas,” Edwards said.

“It’s fast and convenient,” said Jennifer Faulk, who Choi also met at the Clayton County shopping center.

She was a fan of fast food.

“I like it because it’s easy. You don’t have to think about it. You just go get it,” Faulk said.

But after learning about what could be in it, she’s giving up that convenience.

“They aren’t letting us be aware of it. They’re not putting it out there. How would we know? So, it’s scary. It’s scary,” Faulk said.

Cheese pizzas had the least chemicals.

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The chemicals are in a lot of products Americans use every day. But phthalates are no longer used in toys and some other items. Because of the potential health hazards, the government banned their use.

But they still allow restaurants to use them in wrappers, containers and gloves.


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