EDF Health

Selected tag(s): arsenic

FDA seeks expert panel review of neurodevelopmental risk of inorganic arsenic in food

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

The United States has asked the Codex Alimentarius (Codex), the international standard setting body for food, to prioritize inorganic arsenic for evaluation of non-cancer effects such as neurodevelopmental, immunological, and cardiovascular effects. The evaluation would be conducted by an expert panel convened by the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization / World Health Organization Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), on which Codex relies for scientific advice.[1]

EDF will submit comments in support of the proposal and encourages others to do the same.[2] However, FDA should not wait for the review to be finished before incorporating this evidence into its long-awaited standards for inorganic arsenic in rice.

Evidence of harm from inorganic arsenic on children’s neurodevelopment has grown more compelling

Inorganic arsenic is a known water and food contaminant. FDA has measured it in many foods included in its Total Diet Study, but it’s mostly known for its presence in baby and infant foods such as rice and fruit juices. The presence of inorganic arsenic in staples of children’s diets is concerning due to its risk of potential lasting health effects. The risks posed by inorganic arsenic on fetal and child brain development has become increasingly clear since the early 2000s as epidemiological studies began to scrutinize more subtle effects such as learning disorders and epigenetic effects. Earlier studies mostly focused on gross measures such as low body weight or increased stillbirths.

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For children’s food, heavy metals require more attention and better standards

Tom Neltner is Chemicals Policy Director and Michelle Harvey and Maricel Maffini are consultants

In June 2017, EDF released Lead in Food: A Hidden Health Threat. The report examined a decade’s worth of data from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and found lead detected in 20% of baby food samples compared to 14% for other foods. Eight types of baby foods, including fruit juices, root vegetables, and teething biscuits, had detectable lead in more than 40% of the samples. We closed the report with the following recommendation:

In the meantime, parents should consult with their pediatrician to learn about how to reduce lead exposure. They should also check with their favorite brands and ask whether the company regularly tests their products for lead, and ensures that, especially for baby food, there is less than 1 ppb of lead in the food and juices they sell.

As described below, we have reason to believe it will take more focused effort on the part of both FDA and food companies to ensure consistently low levels of heavy metals – lead, arsenic, and cadmium in particular – in infant’s and toddler’s diets.

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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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A new power couple: The combined impact of the microbiome and chemical exposures on disease susceptibility (Part 2 of 2)

Allison Tracy is a Chemicals Policy Fellow. EDF Health Scientist Dr. Jennifer McPartland and Senior Scientist Dr. Richard Denison contributed to this post.

In Part 1 of this two-part post, I reviewed scientific evidence that the gut microbiome interacts with ingested chemicals to influence susceptibility to obesity and diabetes.  This hypothesis is the focus of a recent review article by Suzanne Snedeker and Anthony Hay.  Having reviewed evidence of the link between the microbiome and obesity and diabetes as well as the link between chemical exposures and obesity and diabetes, we now proceed to address this question:  Can the gut microbiome act in concert with ingested synthetic chemicals to predispose people to obesity and diabetes?

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A new power couple: The combined impact of the microbiome and chemical exposures on disease susceptibility (Part 1 of 2)

Allison Tracy is a Chemicals Policy Fellow.  EDF Health Scientist Dr. Jennifer McPartland and Senior Scientist Dr. Richard Denison contributed to this post.

When you’re standing at the kitchen counter this holiday season wrestling with the nebulous world of weight gain, think about synthetic chemicals.  A good number of them are in you.  And studies show that some of them are pretty busy in there, interacting with various biological systems – including your metabolism.

But they’re not the only show in town.  Microbes are busy in your gut doing important things like digesting food and degrading harmful compounds.  But could they also influence the size of your love handles?  New science suggests that these microbes—in concert with certain chemicals—may have just this effect.

It is becoming increasingly clear that it’s not just your genes and your self control that determine your risk for obesity and related complications like diabetes.  Environmental factors are a big part of the equation, and those factors just might extend to synthetic chemicals to which you’re exposed, such as the flame retardants in your furniture and the plasticizers in food can linings.  Read More »

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What are you, really? How our microbiome mediates chemical exposures

Allison Tracy is a Chemicals Policy Fellow. Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

For millennia people have contemplated the question “who am I?”  But how about the even more fundamental question, “what am I”?  The human body is made up of about 10 trillion cells that form our tissues and organs.  But did you know that the human gut is the home to microbes that comprise 10 times more – that is, 100 trillion – cells?  And that, while the human genome contains about 23,000 genes, there are some 3 million genes in the microbes living in the human gut?  Obviously, this complicates things.  It arguably means we could be considered to be more microbe than human!

These numbers should tip us off to the importance of what is known as our “microbiome.”  New science is shedding light on the central function of the microbiome as a mediator between external agents to which we’re exposed and the impacts of those exposures.  Recent studies show, for example, that as chemicals pass through the gastrointestinal tract, they undergo major changes in bioavailability (i.e., how easily they are taken up into our bodies) and in their toxicity.  Recognition of the role of the microbiome is shifting the playing field for toxicology in fundamental ways.   Read More »

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