EDF Health

Heavy metals in food: Carrageenan as an example of the need to improve ingredient quality

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director, and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Independent Consultant.

Arsenic, cadmium and lead levels in carrageenan varied widely but were within international standards. This is not reassuring since current specifications for the heavy metals are inadequate. Food manufacturers can and should set tighter limits to better protect their customers. Consumers, especially those buying from internet-only retailers, need to ask the ingredient supplier how much of the heavy metals is acceptable.

In the fall of 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bought 10 samples of carrageenan from 5 companies sold through internet-only retailers to test for three heavy metals – lead, arsenic (total and inorganic), and cadmium. The agency published the results on its combination metals testing webpage in September 2016.

Each of these metals are carcinogens. In addition, lead and inorganic arsenic are widely acknowledged as harming children’s brain development even at low levels of exposure. EDF found that more than one million children consume lead in amounts that exceeds the maximum exposure level set by FDA in 1993, a level that subsequent research shows is of great risk to children’s health. Further, recent research has strengthened evidence of the relationship between low levels of lead exposure in adults and cardiovascular deaths. In 2011, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) took the extraordinary step of withdrawing its previous tolerable intake level for lead because it could not determine a safe level of exposure for children.

In light of these risks, we must make every effort to reduce the levels of these heavy metals in food to the greatest extent possible – without undermining other food safety measures or compromising quality. A key step to success is examining the levels of heavy metals in all ingredients used to make a food since the risk is based on the cumulative exposure – even if the amounts in individual additives are small. With this in mind, we revisited FDA’s analysis of carrageenan.

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New Study Says Lead – Even at Low Levels – is Associated with Risk of Premature Death

Dr. Ananya Roy is Health Scientist and Tom Neltner, J.D. is Chemicals Policy Director

This week, a team of researchers led by Dr. Bruce Lanphear published an important new study on the deadly impact of lead exposure for adults. The researchers examined data on more than 14,000 adults and found that an increase of 1 to 6.7 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL) was significantly associated with an increase in mortality of 37% for all-causes, 70% for cardiovascular, and 108% for ischemic heart disease. The findings remained significant even after they considered and accounted for other factors that could have explained this effect.

This research fills a gap identified by the National Toxicology Program in 2011 in our understanding of the risk of lead exposure at low levels in adults. And it goes further by providing a quantitative relationship crucial to better evaluating the potential economic benefits of various policy options.

The study also had startling estimates about how many people are hurt by lead exposure. The authors estimated that over 400,000 Americans every year die from lead related illnesses – ten times higher than previous assessments. That’s on par with deaths from smoking cigarettes.

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Posted in Emerging Science, EPA, Health Policy, Health Science, lead, Regulation / Tagged , , , | Read 1 Response

A path to leadership: Food packaging product stewardship considerations released

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Last week, we spent two days at a Chemical Watch food packaging conference with manufacturers and suppliers trying to better understand the process for bringing innovative products to market. They learned what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other countries will demand and what challenges they need to anticipate. While regulatory aspects are complicated, the attendees often talked about the difficulties of navigating requirements from companies and reacting to consumer expectations about packaging chemicals.

These concerns were timely. On March 9, the Food Safety Alliance for Packaging (FSAP), a part of the Institute of Packaging Professionals, released “Food Packaging Product Stewardship Considerations,” a set of best practices. This marks the first public recognition by a sector of the packaging industry of the expectations and demands from food manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.

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Washington State takes action to eliminate use of PFAS in food packaging

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Around 1990, driven by a concern to keep heavy metals out of recycled products, many states adopted laws prohibiting the intentional addition of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury to packaging and limited their total concentration to 100 parts per million. Manufacturers and suppliers of packaging and packaging components in these states were also both required to furnish a Certificate of Compliance to the packaging purchaser and provide a copy to the state and the public upon request. The Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse currently reports that 19 states have adopted this type of legislation.

Out of concern about consumer’s health and contamination of compost, on February 28, 2018, Washington State extended its heavy metal packaging law in a groundbreaking way. The legislature passed HB-2658 banning the intentional use of “perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances” (PFAS) in food packaging made from plant fibers, pending a determination by the Washington Department of Ecology that safer alternatives are available. The law defines PFAS as “a class of fluorinated organic chemicals containing at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom.”

The ban goes into effect in 2022 or two years after the Department makes the safer alternative determination, whichever is later.[1] If, after evaluating the chemical hazards, exposure, performance, cost, and availability of alternatives, the Department does not find safer alternatives by 2020, it must update its analysis annually. We anticipate that this approach will spur innovation among companies offering alternatives and provide a thoughtful and rigorous review of the options.

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Posted in FDA, Food, Health Policy, Health Science, Public Health, States / Tagged , , , , | Comments are closed

FDA on Lead in Grape Juice: Too Late, and Way Too Little Improvement

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Update on May 12, 2018: Despite the concerns raised, the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods decided that lowering the limit for grape juice from 50 ppb to 40 ppb was sufficient.  The fill Commission will make a final decision at its July 2018 meeting.

On March 12, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be leading the U.S. delegation in the Netherlands proposing that the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopt a maximum lead limit of 40 parts per billion (ppb) in grape juice. The current limit, set by Codex in the 1980s, is 50 ppb. While a small step in the right direction, FDA’s proposal falls woefully short of adequately protecting children from lead.

For context, the 40 ppb proposed Codex limit would be 2.6 times greater than the 15 ppb lead action level established for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1991 and 8 times FDA’s limit of 5 ppb for bottled water. In addition, a child drinking a single 8-ounce serving of juice with a lead concentration of 40 ppb will be exposed to 160% of FDA’s maximum daily intake level of 6 micrograms of lead per day. This level, set in 1993, should be much lower because it does not reflect scientific discoveries of the past 25 years showing harm to children at lower levels.

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Posted in EPA, FDA, Food, Health Policy, Health Science, lead, Public Health / Tagged , , , , , | Comments are closed

Lead in hot water – an issue worth testing

Preliminary testing results: 50% (7 of 14) of water heater tanks tested in child care centers had levels over 50 ppb with one at 2,680 ppb. For all but one of these, flushing through the tank drain significantly reduced the lead levels in the water heater. At the hot water tap, only 4 of 161 (2%) samples were above EDF's action level (3.8 ppb). Water heaters may function as “lead traps,” but more investigation is needed. Best to avoid using hot water for cooking or drinking.

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director. Analysis conducted by Lindsay McCormick, Project Manager.

Last March, I was giving a talk on lead and drinking water at the National Lead and Healthy Housing Conference. A questioner from a state health department asked me why the standard lead testing methods only sample cold water when experience suggests that people use hot water when making infant formula, dissolving powered drinks, and cooking food. After mumbling for a few minutes that people are supposed to drink cold water, I realized that I really didn’t know the answer – but should.

When risk assessment ignores real life, we are bound to miss something important. For hot water, I think we may be.

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Posted in Drinking Water, EPA, Health Policy, Health Science, lead, Public Health / Tagged , , , | Comments are closed