UK – University of Birmingham researchers have called on manufacturers to check their use of organophosphate esters (OPEs), which are considered a threat to human health, and start exploring alternatives.

The researchers conducted a study, published in Science of the Total Environment, on common synthetic chemicals found in UK foods where nearly 400 food samples were tested for evidence of OPEs.

OPEs are chemicals used as flame retardants in furnishings and textiles, building, food packaging materials and decorating materials, as well in various other consumer products.

Although the study found that most food samples had residues below those currently deemed to be a risk to health, the researchers say this baseline survey should be a wake-up call to industrial users of OPEs to review their use of these substances and begin looking into alternatives.

“Organophosphates are toxic to human health at high levels, or with long term exposure, and their use is increasing worldwide.

“Although we found that current levels in food products are not dangerous, these chemicals build up in the body’s fatty tissues over time and we need to have a clearer picture of the different sources of contaminants,” said Lead Author Muideen Gbadamosi.

He also urged the industry to investigate supply chains to better understand where contaminants might be introduced.

“We can also ingest OPEs from dust, or just from the air we breathe. There are data on these sources of contamination, but not yet on food products, so our research fills a really important gap in our knowledge,” he said.

Study findings

The team classified sample goods into 15 food groups—either made from products with animal byproducts or from products made from plants—and evaluated them for eight different OPEs.

They discovered that concentrations were greatest in milk and milk-related items, next in cereal and cereal-related products. Eggs from chickens had the lowest concentrations.

With the exception of eggs and egg products, all food samples included the compounds triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) and 2-ethylhexyl diphenyl phosphate (EHDPP), which were the most prevalent.

The levels of the compounds varied between samples, but overall, there was no statistically significant difference between the quantities in foods made from animal and plant sources.

The researchers also calculated the average daily nutritional intakes for four age groups including toddlers, kids, seniors, and adults.

Toddlers consumed 39% of their OPE from baby food, whereas children consumed the majority of it from non-alcoholic liquids (27 per cent).

Cereal goods (25%) and fruit (22%) were the greatest contributors in adults and the elderly.

The investigation discovered that these pollutants were present in foods in the UK at levels that were generally comparable to those reported in other nations.

Finally, the researchers merged their information on dietary exposure with information that was already known about the same chemicals being consumed through indoor dust in the UK.

In comparison to the health-based limit values (HBLVs) for specific OPEs, they discovered that exposure to OPEs for adults remained far below levels deemed hazardous to health.

However, for several OPEs, such as EHDPP, tris(2-butoxyethyl) phosphate (TBOEP), tris(2-chloroisopropyl) phosphate (TCIPP), and tris(1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate, the safety margins were substantially narrower under high-end exposure scenarios (TDCIPP).

The high-end exposure data for EHDPP, TBOEP, TCIPP, and TDCIPP was approximately 56%, 52%, 37%, and 10% of the health-based limit value, the guideline value for assessing risk to health, for toddlers, and 88%, 30%, 22%, and 14% of the health-based limit value for children, respectively.

“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,” said Mr. Gbadamosi.

Liked this article? Subscribe to Food Safety Africa News, our regular email newsletters with the latest news insights from Africa and the World’s food safety, quality and compliance. SUBSCRIBE HERE