EFSA sees risks to children from lead in food

MILAN (Reuters) - Lead present in food can pose a risk to brain development for children, while risks for most adults are low to negligible, the European Union food safety watchdog said on Tuesday.

An expert panel on contaminants, which assessed current levels of exposure to lead through food and other sources at the request of the European Commission, could not set a firm level above which lead in food could trigger health problems, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said in a report.

Human exposure to lead, an environmental contaminant which occurs naturally and through human activities such as mining, smelting and battery manufacturing, can occur through food, air, water, soil and dust, EFSA said.

“There is considerable evidence demonstrating that the developing brain is more vulnerable to the neurotoxicity of lead than the mature brain,” EFSA’s scientific opinion said, referring to lead in food.

“In children, an elevated blood lead level is inversely associated with a reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) score and reduced cognitive functions up to at least seven years of age,” EFSA said.

Based on a review of the available data, EFSA’s panel considered the existing Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake (PTWI) was no longer appropriate.

But a new guidance level could not be established because there was no clear threshold below which the panel was confident that adverse effects would not occur, EFSA said.

“This firm level is not possible to set at the moment ... It is based on very conservative calculations,” an EFSA spokesman said.

Europe has considerably reduced human exposure to lead since the 1970s, by cutting the levels of lead in petrol, paint, food cans and pipes. But concerns remain over the possibility of lead entering the food chain, EFSA said.

EFSA’s panel considered cereals, vegetables and tap water to contribute most to 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, EFSA said.

EFSA said its scientific advice will help inform any follow-up action to be taken by the European Commission and EU member states.

The Commission together with experts from the member states “will re-examine the current maximum levels, taking into account EFSA’s opinion and more recent data,” Frederic Vincent, spokesman for EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli, said.

But concrete proposals are unlikely before the end of 2010, he added.

Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova; Editing by Amanda Cooper