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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 10, No. 4 - Critical Issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1998, 16 p.)
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Food For Thought

Assessing Risk Exposure in Food for the Next Generation

Reducing malnutrition should be an urgent global priority; inaction is a scandalous affront to the human right to survival. A malnourished child with his mother in Afghanistan

SOURCE: UNICEF, State of the World's, 1998

We provide our children with a healthful diet to the degree that we control the ingredients in our food. Even if we eat only what we ourselves raise or catch, the foods we consume and give our offspring are subject to toxic contamination from persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. As POPs dissolve in fatty tissue and bio-accumulate up the food chain, humans, at the top of the food chain, can ingest these toxic chemicals simply by eating an ostensibly healthful meal of salmon (a fatty fish) or an obviously unwholesome American fast food burger.

POPs degrade slowly, disperse easily, and are drawn from warm to colder climates, hence they migrate toward Arctic regions contaminating the indigenous inhabitants through their diet, even though they live thousands of miles from the pollutants' source. People living in the Arctic, particularly the Inuit whose diet traditionally relies on marine mammals and fatty fish, have some of the highest body concentrations of POPs in the world. High levels of PCBs have been detected in the breast milk of Inuit women, who inadvertently feed these toxins to their infants.

According to the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), "injury caused by exposure to POPs is often expressed, not in the exposed adult population, but in the offspring generation. Maternal body burdens of POPs are transferred through the placenta to the developing fetus and through breast milk to the nursing infant, and can cause injury at vulnerable stages of development that may not be expressed until the infant reaches puberty or adulthood." POPs have been associated with diseases of the immune and endocrine systems including cancer, reproductive disorders and birth defects.

Several recent studies published at the end of 1998 look more closely at the relationship among POPs exposure, food and health. As reported in Environmental Health Perspectives, Dutch researchers investigated food habits from early childhood until reproductive age (25 years) comparing exposure to PCBs and dioxin - two of the most treacherous POPs - from foods in infancy, the preschool years and long term*.

These investigators studied a group of 207 children from birth until preschool age. In toddlers, dairy products contributed 43% to PCB-TEQ (TEQ stands for toxic equivalent) and 50% to dioxin-TEQ intake. Meat and meat products contributed 14% and 19%, respectively, and processed foods 23% and 15%, respectively. Breast-feeding for 6 months contributed to the cumulative PCB/dioxin TEQ intake until 25 years of age, 12% in boys and 14% in girls. The daily TEQ intake per kilogram body weight is 50 times higher in breast-fed infants and three times higher in toddlers than in adults. Long-term dietary exposure to PCBs and dioxins in men and women is partly due to breast-feeding (12 and 14%, respectively). After weaning, dairy products, processed foods, and meat are major contributors of PCB and dioxin accumulation until reproductive age. This study highlighting the maternal transfer of PCBs and dioxins to the next generation recommends strict enforcement of the regulations for PCB and dioxin discharge and avoidance of animal products and processed foods in all ages.

Danish scientists investigating links between breast cancer and chemicals known as endocrine disrupters, a type of POPs, found that women who had the highest levels of dieldrin, in their blood had a 200% increased chance of developing breast cancer than women with the lowest concentrations. The study also revealed that neither PCB nor DDT were clearly linked to the disease. Dieldrin was a popular chemical used in pesticides for agricultural crops including corn and cotton from the 1950s until the 1970s. Dieldrin, PCB and DDT are among the POPs "dirty dozen" (see Health and Environment column in this issue).

The typical American diet relies on meat, dairy products and processed foods -the foods most contaminated with POPs. In addition, the US diet remains high in transfatty acids. These fats found in hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils commonly used in commercial and home cooking, continue to be associated with heart disease and cancer. The diets of the Inuit, the Dutch and the Americans suggest that unhealthful eating is a globalized phenomenon. Food contamination from persistent organic pollutants is certainly a global problem affecting future generations. However, exporting the American diet - attractive as it is to young people - exacerbates this problem.


SOURCE: *Dietary Exposure to Polychlorinated Biphenyls and Dioxins from Infancy Until Adulthood: A Comparison Between Breast-feeding, Toddler, and Long-term Exposure, Svati Patandin, Pieter C. Dagnelie, Paul G.H. Mulder, Eline Op de Coul, Juul E. van der Veen, Nynke Weisglas-Kuperus, and Pieter J.J. Sauer, Environmental Health Perspectives (Vol. 107, No. 1, January 1999); "Pesticides Linked to Breast Cancer," Copyright 1998 Reuters Ltd. Dec 4, 1998, By Patricia Reaney; Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly #601, June 4, 1998; IPEN