In fall 2011, Chih Chao “Justin” Yang, M.P.H. ’12, a physician pursuing a career in internal medicine, had an idea for his 1,000-word final project for Rose Goldman’s EH201, “Introduction to Environmental Health” class.
With a strong interest in preventive medicine, Yang wanted to increase awareness of the need for governments to stop illegal food manufacturing practices and tighten food safety regulations. He wanted classmates to learn about a Taiwan incident earlier that year in which manufacturers reportedly tried to cut costs by replacing palm oil with two phthalates (chemicals added to plastics to increase flexibility). The chemicals, including one known as DEHP, had been added to nearly 1,000 food products – including sports drinks, tea, juice, dietary supplements, and jam – and exported to 22 countries, including the U.S. and Canada. He believed the incident, which wasn’t widely publicized in the U.S., demanded further disclosure and investigation.
“I was curious and wanted to know what kind of health effects DEHP might have on people if they ate tainted foods and beverages every day,” he said. DEHP can affect hormones and has been linked to developmental issues in children and reproductive organ development problems in male laboratory animals. After the Taiwan government made public the tainted food, the products were reportedly pulled from market and destroyed. However, according to Yang, the government apparently did not investigate the full extent of contamination or potential health impacts.