New study shows low levels of pesticides and phthalates and no BPA in school meals but high levels of a chemical plasticizer in prepackaged meals

Jul 26, 2023

Pesticides, phthalates, bisphenol-A, commonly known as BPA, and plasticizers are chemicals commonly used in the food supply chain that can have negative health consequences for people regularly exposed to them. A recent study found that school meals had low levels of phthalates and no detectable levels of BPA. However, the study also found that pre-packaged school meals may have high levels of the plasticizer Diethylhexyl adipate, commonly known as DEHA and an often-used substitute for BPA. While these chemical levels are similar to those found in many other foods children typically consume, it is concerning given the limited research on the health impact of DEHA, especially on children who are more vulnerable to the negative health impacts of certain chemicals. Although pesticides were detected in over half of the school meal produce items and a quarter of entrées sampled, nearly all were below the average levels detected by the US Department of Agriculture's Pesticide Data Program. Researchers analyzed the presence of these chemicals in 50 school meal samples made on-site from scratch or pre-packaged and reheated, which were collected between 2019 to 2021 in eight New England schools serving kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The study authors recommend additional studies to investigate the impact of DEHA on children's health and pesticides in school foods, additional funding for schools to prepare food on-site to reduce students' exposure to plasticizers, and for schools to minimize packaging for meals made on-site with plastic. Study results were published in the journal Environmental Research by Juliana Cohen, Scott Richardson, William March and Russ Hauser from Merrimack College and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Wendi Gosliner from the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. This study was funded by a grant from the Shah Family Foundation.

By Danielle Lee
Author - Director of Communications & Research Engagement
By Wendi Gosliner
Editor - Project scientist