Taking off the Toxic Gloves: An Investigation of Phthalates and Other Chemicals of Concern in Food Handling Gloves
Plastic such as polyvinyl chloride (commonly called PVC or vinyl) needs additives to be flexible for applications like food handling gloves and plasticizers are designed for this purpose. These plasticizers are not bound to the vinyl and can leech into the environment and food. A common plasticizer is the class of chemicals called ortho-phthalates, abbreviated to phthalates. Food is the primary source of exposure to several phthalates, and gloves and other food handling equipment contribute to unintentionally adding phthalates to food. Phthalates have endocrine disrupting abilities; therefore, their presence in food is alarming.
We studied two streams of single-use disposable vinyl food handling gloves: those imported for distributors to sell and those in use at restaurants. In all, we found that 1 in 6 or 14% of gloves tested contain phthalates. Four phthalates were found in some vinyl gloves, alone or in combination with one another: DEHP (the most toxic), DINP (the unsafe alternative), DIDP (has growing concern) and DPHP (closely related to DIDP, increasingly used). This study is the first time that DPHP has been identified in food handling gloves to the authors’ knowledge. DOTP, a terephthalate, was the most commonly used as a plasticizer in gloves. Regardless of which plasticizer is used to make vinyl gloves, the plasticizer makes up a large percentage of the glove’s weight—upwards of 30%—of an unbound, highly mobile molecules. Safer alternatives to vinyl gloves are available, including bare hands with proper washing, polyethylene (preferred), and nitrile (acceptable).
Our study found that 2 out of 3 restaurants visited use vinyl gloves. The presence of phthalates in vinyl gloves is inconsistent across glove distributors and restaurants due to inadequate supply chain management. With vinyl gloves being so commonly used at restaurants, it presents the possibility for any glove to contain phthalates and indirectly add phthalates to food. Gloves containing phthalates were in use at four restaurant locations: McDonald’s (2 locations), Wendy’s (1), and Burger King (1). Some restaurants use only polyethylene gloves, which from our study includes Subway, Panera Bread, and Starbucks restaurants.