Researchers at the University of Birmingham have issued a ‘wake-up call’ to industrial users of organophosphate esters (OPEs). The synthetic chemicals are used widely as flame retardants in furnishings, textiles and food packaging, among other products.
Lead author, Muideen Gbadamosi said: “Organophosphates are toxic to human health at high levels, or with long term exposure, and their use is increasing worldwide.”
Although the levels found were not currently deemed a risk to health, Gbadamosi warned: “These chemicals build up in the body’s fatty tissues over time and we need a clearer picture of the different sources of contaminants.”
The team estimated that baby food contributed 39% of OPE intake for toddlers, while non-alcoholic beverages were the main contributor for children (27%). In adults and the elderly, cereal products (25%) and fruit (22%) were the main contributors.
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.”
“PAN UK would like to see more research into the cocktail effect as a matter of urgency and for there to be a more rigorous testing regime for food contaminants by the FSA.”
Nick Mole, Policy Officer at the Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK) said that the research highlights how contaminated our food chain is. He said: “It is already clear that much of the food consumed in the UK is contaminated with pesticide residues.
“Adding OPEs to the mix is increasing the cocktail of contaminants that make up our daily diet. Too little is known about how these chemicals interact with each other and what impact ingesting such chemicals through dietary exposure might have on human health in both the short and long term.
“PAN UK would like to see more research into the cocktail effect as a matter of urgency and for there to be a more rigorous testing regime for food contaminants implemented by the Food Standards Agency.”
Izaak Fryer-Kanssen, Senior Food Policy Advisor, Food Standards Agency (FSA) responded: “We aim to keep levels of chemical contaminants as low as can reasonably be achieved, and regularly monitor levels of contaminants in food. While there are currently no regulatory limits in place for OPEs in food, this does not mean that any level is permitted, and food businesses have a responsibility to ensure that food placed on the market is safe."
The FSA added that a limited number of organophosphate-like substances are permitted for use as additives in plastic food contact materials. However, manufacturers must ensure that they meet the strict specifications of use.
Legislation requires that chemicals must not migrate from packaging into foods at levels which could harm health or negatively affect the taste or aroma.