Researchers at the University of Birmingham have completed the first comprehensive assessment of common synthetic chemicals found in foods in the UK.
In the study, which was published in Science of the Total Environment, nearly 400 food samples were tested for organophosphate esters (OPEs) – chemicals used to prevent or slow the growth of fire in furnishings, textiles and building, food packaging and decorating materials.
All samples tested showed levels of OPEs that were not considered to be a risk to human health. However, the study’s authors say the survey should still be seen as “a wake-up call to industrial users” of the substances. They also hope it will encourage users to explore new alternatives to OPEs.
The report also advises food producers to investigate supply chains to help them recognise where contaminants might be first introduced.
To carry out the study, the research team divided sample products into 15 food groups, consisting either of animal-derived or plant-derived products. These were then tested for eight different OPEs.
The foods which had the highest concentration of these synthetic chemicals were milk and milk-based products, followed by cereal and cereal-based goods. OPE concentrations were the lowest in chicken eggs.
All food samples, besides egg and egg-based products, contained the chemicals triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) and 2-ethylhexyl diphenyl phosphate (EHDPP).
The concentrations of chemicals across animal-derived foods and plant-derived foods were “statistically indistinguishable”, according to the researchers.
The study also estimated the daily dietary intakes of these chemicals across toddlers, children, adults, and the elderly. It found that baby food was the major contributor to OPE intake for toddlers while for children it was soft drinks and juices. In adults and elderly people, cereal products and fruit were the major contributors.
Lead author of the study and Doctoral Researcher Muideen Gbadamosi said: “It’s clear that food is a significant source of human exposure to OPEs in the UK and that more work is urgently needed to fully understand the risks of continuing to increase our use of OPEs.”
Researchers also combined data on dietary exposure with data on the same chemicals ingested through indoor dust in the UK. For adults, they found that OPE exposure remained below levels that would be considered dangerous to health.
The result was different for children and toddlers, according to the report, as the safety margins were much smaller under high-end exposure scenarios for some OPEs.
Overall, the report found that contaminant levels in UK foods were relatively similar to those reported in other countries.
Mr Gbadamosi added: “Organophosphates are toxic to human health at high levels, or with long term exposure, and their use is increasing worldwide.
“Although we found that current levels in food products are not dangerous, these chemicals build up in the body’s fatty tissues over time and we need to have a clearer picture of the different sources of contaminants.
“We can also ingest OPEs from dust, or just from the air we breathe. There are data on these sources of contamination, but not yet on food products, so our research fills a really important gap in our knowledge.”
As consumers become increasingly concerned with their health and wellbeing, functional foods are expected to boom in the next year. Find out more about the future of the sector in this upcoming Trends Panel: