Researchers measuring the amount of food-borne toxin exposure in children and adults found that preschool children in particular, are at high risk for exposure to compounds linked to cancer, developmental disabilities, birth defects and other conditions. However, the study also details dietary modifications that could reduce the risk.
The researchers used data from a 2007 study that surveyed households with children between two and five to determine how their diets and other factors contribute to toxic exposure. They focused on 44 foods known to have high concentrations of toxic compounds: metals, arsenic, lead and mercury; pesticides chlorpyrifos, permethrin and endosulfan; persistent organic pollutants dioxin, DDT, dieldrin and chlordane; and the food processing byproduct acrylamide.
They assessed risk by comparing toxin consumption to established benchmarks for cancer risk as well as the risk for other health conditions.
All 364 children in the study (207 preschool children between two and seven and 157 school-age children between five and seven) exceeded the cancer benchmarks for arsenic, dieldrin, DDE and dioxins. In all, preschool-age children had higher exposure to more than half the toxic compounds measured.
In addition, more than 95% of preschool children exceeded non-cancer risk levels for acrylamide, a chemical that can form in some foods during high-temperature cooking processes, such as frying, roasting, and baking. It is often found in snack foods such as crackers, potato and tortilla chips.
Pesticide exposure was particularly high in tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, dairy, pears, green beans and celery.
This study is particularly disturbing because relatively low exposures of toxins in children can greatly increase the risk of cancer or neurological impairment.
"We need to be especially careful about children, because they tend to be more vulnerable to many of these chemicals and their effects on the developing brain," said study principal investigator Irva Hertz-Picciotto.
Reduce Your Family’s Risk
Though these results are cause for concern, the study also outlines strategies to lower family exposure:
- Choose organic produce to help reduce exposure to pesticides.
- Varying your diet can help reduce exposure as toxin types vary in different foods. This can help protect you from accumulating too much of any one toxin.
- Families also can reduce their consumption of animal meat and fats, which may contain high levels of DDE and other persistent organic pollutants. Also switch to organic milk.
- While mercury is most often found in fish, accumulation varies greatly by species. Smaller fish, lower on the food chain, generally have lower mercury levels.
- Acrilomides are relatively easy to remove from the diet by reducing the amount of chips and other processed grains.
While the study has important implications for dietary habits, the researchers stress that more work needs to be done to quantify risk. Specifically, we need to determine how these food-borne toxins interact collectively in the body. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only measures risk based on exposures of individual contaminants.
UC Davis Health System
U.S. Food and Drug Administration