EFSA assesses health implications of lead in food

The European Food Safety Authority’s expert Panel on contaminants (CONTAM Panel) has published a scientific opinion on possible health risks related to the presence of lead in food. The opinion concludes that current levels of exposure to lead pose a low to negligible health risk for most adults but there is potential concern over possible neurodevelopmental effects in young children.

Lead is an environmental contaminant which occurs both naturally and through human activities such as mining. Measures have been taken to regulate levels of lead in petrol, paint, food cans and pipes in Europe since the 1970s, and these have had a considerable effect in reducing exposure. Nevertheless, some concern remains due to the fact that lead can enter into the food chain.

EFSA was therefore asked by the European Commission to assess current levels of exposure to lead, through both food and other sources, and to determine whether the existing guidance level for protecting public health, known as the Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake (PTWI), was still appropriate.

The CONTAM Panel considered cereals, vegetables and tap water to contribute most to dietary exposure to lead for most Europeans. Non-dietary exposure to lead was considered to be of minor importance to adults, although house dust and soil can be important sources of exposure for children.

The Panel identified reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) levels in young children, and high blood pressure in adults, as the key health effects on which to base its assessment. Following a review of the available data, the Panel considered that the PTWI was no longer appropriate. A new guidance level could not be established, as there was no clear threshold below which the Panel was confident that adverse effects would not occur. The Panel therefore compared current exposure estimates for different groups of the population to levels above which adverse effects may occur. As a result, the Panel concludes that in particular there is a potential concern for neurodevelopmental effects in foetuses, infants and children.

EFSA’s scientific advice will help inform any follow-up action to be taken by the European Commission and EU Member States. This is the last in a series of risk assessments related to metals which can be found as contaminants in the food chain. Opinions on arsenic, cadmium and uranium were published by EFSA’s CONTAM Panel last year.