Children ingesting high levels of food toxins: How to protect

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
California researchers find preschoolers exposed to high levels of  food toxins.

Ingesting pesticides and other toxic compounds including metals is a concern for human health, especially among children. A new investigation from UC Davis and UCLA measured exposure to food-borne toxins among children and adults. The results showed preschool children are at especially high risk for exposure to a variety of toxic compounds in food that raise the risk of future cancer and perhaps other diseases.

Compounds targeted in the study include arsenic, dieldrin, DDE (a DDT metabolite), dioxins and acrylamide.

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor and chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health at UC Davis and lead investigator of the study explained in a news release how our food can become contaminated.

Picciotto said toxins can get into the body from food in ways that have nothing to do with food or byproducts of processing. For instance, DDT that has been banned for 40 years still persists in the environment. Foods like rice, pick up arsenic from the environment. Scientists still don't know what happens when people are exposed to low levels of food contaminants over a long period of time.

44 foods toxic food targeted in study

The research team wanted to explore sources of food contamination, so they focused on 44 foods consumed by families in California households, using established reference points for cancer and non-cancer health risks.

Among 364 children in the study, 157 exceeded cancer benchmarks for arsenic, dieldrin, DDE and dioxins. There were 207 preschool children between age 2 and 7 and 157 school-age children between age 5 and 7 included in the study.

"We focused on children because early exposure can have long-term effects on disease outcomes," said Rainbow Vogt, lead author of the study in a media release.

"Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only measures risk based on exposures of individual contaminants. We wanted to understand the cumulative risk from dietary contaminants”.

Vogt said the finding shows a need to prevent exposure of food toxins to lower children’s risk of cancer.

Processed foods a concern for cancer

The study also found 95% of children are being exposed to high levels of a cancer causing compound known as acrylamide that is a byproduct of cooking that exceeded non-cancer risk levels.

The authors note acrylamide exposure comes from processed foods like potato and tortilla chips.


Pesticide levels were found to be high in tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, dairy, pears, green beans and celery.

The results come from the “Study of Use of Products and Exposure-Related Behavior (SUPERB) that surveyed of households in California with children between the ages of two and five in 2007.

The study focused on 44 foods that are known to have high levels of metals, arsenic, lead and mercury; pesticides chlorpyrifos, permethrin and endosulfan in addition to acrylamide and the organic pollutants dioxin, DDT, dieldrin and chlordane.

Databases were used to measure levels of the toxins. The study investigators also used the Total Diet Study.

The report showed pre-school children who are vulnerable to the ill health effects are ingesting higher amounts of more than half the food toxins measured in the study.

"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 Picciotto.

How to limit food toxins in the diet

The finding suggests it’s important to take steps to minimize ingestion of toxins in food; especially for children.

The study authors say eating more organic foods, reducing consumption of animal meats and fat that contains high levels of DDE and switching to organic milk can help.

It’s also important to vary your children’s diet. Introducing fish into the diet is healthy, but fish contains high levels of mercury. Smaller fish that are lower on the food chain may be safer.

Co-author Deborah Bennett, associate professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at UC Davis said "Given the significant exposure to legacy pollutants, society should be concerned about the persistence of compounds we are currently introducing into the environment. If we later discover a chemical has significant health risks, it will be decades before it's completely removed from the ecosystem."

The researchers suggest more studies to understand the cumulative effects of toxins in food and how it could impact the health of children especially who are vulnerable to even low level exposure to contaminants that enter the food chain.

UC Davis Health System
November 13, 2012

Image credit: Morguefile


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