Despite the fact that phthalates in children’s toys and products have been banned by the United States government since 2008, and many other manufacturers have removed them from their products, it’s possible we haven’t escaped exposure to these harmful chemicals just yet — another source is our favorite greasy fast foods. In a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers found that people who reported eating more fast food ended up being exposed to higher levels of phthalates, which could mean they’re at a higher risk of developing phthalate-related health issues like diabetes or genital birth defects.

We’ve heard about the culprits before: Environmental health toxins like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), at certain levels, have been dubbed dangerous, and linked to a myriad of health issues and diseases. BPA is a component often found in metal can coatings or plastic bottles, and sometimes seeps into the food it surrounds. Research has investigated the potential effects of BPA consumption and linked it to premature birth, poor reproductive health, diabetes, and obesity. The amount of these chemicals allowed in food packaging is regulated by the FDA, and for now, it states that current levels of BPA in foods are “safe.” In other words, in order to be at risk of these disorders, you might have to consume a much larger amount of BPA.

Phthalates, meanwhile, are a type of industrial chemical used to soften plastics — they’re used in food packaging, dairy product tubing, and other consumer products. High levels of phthalates have been linked to preterm births, lowered testosterone, and an impaired sex drive.

The FDA has only banned certain types of phthalates, however, and other types still exist in many consumer products and foods without much regulation. It turns out that fast food, in particular, contains a lot of phthalates that leak from the packaging, the researchers of the latest study note. “People who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels that were as much as 40 percent higher,” said co-author Ami Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, in a press release. “Our findings raise concerns because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults.”

For the study, researchers examined 8,877 participants who gave detailed reports about their diet within the past 24 hours. The researchers also took a urine sample, which allowed them to measure levels of DEHP and DiNP — two types of phthalates that haven’t been banned by the FDA. The more fast food a person ate, the higher their level of phthalates, the researchers found. Those who ate the most fast food had 23.8 percent higher levels of DEHP breakdown products in their urine than those who didn’t eat fast food. That same group of people also had 40 percent higher levels of DiNHP breakdown products in their urine compared to those who didn’t eat fast food. Grain and meat, in particular, were considered the biggest sources of phthalates.

In addition to testing for DEHP and DiNP, the researchers fished for BPA levels. They found no association between fast food intake and BPA in general, but noticed a link between consumption of more fast food meat products and a higher level of BPA.

But to what extent are these levels truly dangerous? It’s tough to tell without conducting more research, Zota told Medical Daily. Since the FDA doesn’t have any specific guidelines on phthalates in food, she said it’s hard to say whether eating at Burger King will increase your risk of reproductive problems. But there is an implication there, especially since this study hints that the more processed your food is, the higher its phthalate content will be.

“Studies have definitely looked at and measured items in grocery stores, and they do find detectable levels [of phthalates],” Zota told Medical Daily. “Because often those items have gone through processing before it gets to your grocery store. I think our study points to the fact that the more processing and packaging that food comes in contact with,” the more likely it will will contain phthalates.

Regardless, until more research is done, you can lower your exposure to phthalates and other fast food-related chemicals by increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s impossible to completely eliminate phthalate exposure because they’re so “ubiquitous,” Zota said. But “people concerned about this issue can’t go wrong by eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food,” she said in the press release. “A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates.”

Ultimately, in addition to providing some sense of guidance to people who want to choose healthier diets and steer clear of chemicals in their food, Zota hopes the study will work to raise awareness about the larger issue of reducing harmful chemicals in food supplies. “It’s an important problem, but definitely difficult to solve and will involve a lot of different stakeholders,” she said. “Because a lot of scientific and clinical professional organizations are increasingly voicing their concern about the toxic health effects of phthalates, there is a need to help individuals reduce their exposure. This study plays a role there, and hopefully it will raise awareness for greater action at the societal or policy level.”

Source: Zota A, et al. Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposure Among the US Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environmental Health Perspectives . 2016.