Contaminants that exceeded cancer and non-cancer benchmarks
For our study population, the means of the estimated intakes for the following dietary contaminants exceeded benchmark levels: were acrylamide, arsenic, lead, and among persistent organic pollutants, chlordane (children only), dieldrin, DDE, and PCDD/Fs. Children exceed the non-cancer and cancer benchmarks by a greater margin than adults for all compounds. This is especially of concern for children because all of these compounds are suspected endocrine disruptors and thus may impact normal development. Cancer risk ratios were exceeded by over a factor of 100 for arsenic and PCDD/Fs. Although we have emphasized compounds where the mean exceeded the benchmark, it is of public health consequence that more than 10% of the study population exceeded the non-cancer benchmarks for arsenic and methylmercury.
Health endpoints associated with contaminant exposure vary by compound. Acrylamide may induce neuromuscular defects . Chronic arsenic exposure by ingestion has been related to various types of cancer . Lead is known to damage the nervous and reproductive systems, especially in young children and at low levels with an approximate one point decrease in IQ with each 1 μg/dL increase in blood lead . As for banned pesticides, chlordane exposure has been associated with cancers, neurotoxicity  and low birth weight . Dieldrin has been linked to Parkinson's Disease and cancer . DDE is genotoxic and an endocrine disruptor . TCDD, the most toxic of the PCDD/F congeners, is an endocrine disruptor, is known to disrupt the developing immune, nervous, and reproductive systems, and has been shown to be teratogenic, mutagenic, carcinogenic, immunotoxic, and hepatotoxic in animal models [45, 46].
Estimates of dietary exposures in SUPERB participants were similar to previously reported estimates of Dougherty et al. . Both analyses found that cancer benchmarks were exceeded for arsenic, chlordane, dieldrin, DDT/DDE, and dioxin among children. Dougherty et al. reported that children were found to exceed lifetime benchmarks for intake of these pollutants by age 12 (a lifetime average daily dose based on childhood exposure alone was calculated to reach this conclusion).
Acrylamide was the only compound for which mean intakes in our study exceeded the noncancer benchmarks. By comparison, the only other study that included acrylamide was conducted in Japan and did not calculate acrylamide in terms of reference dosages . Regarding the implications of high acrylamide exposure, the safety of dietary sources of acrylamide is currently under study by the FDA. A major goal of the draft FDA Action Plan on Acrylamide in Food, released in 2004, is to assess the dietary exposure of U.S. consumers to acrylamide by measuring acrylamide levels in various foods and estimating dietary exposure . Findings on acrylamide exposure among children and adults reported herein contribute to this goal.
Calculated intake compared to previous reports – dioxin
Previously reported intakes for dioxin were as follows: Jensen at al. quantified dioxin intake calculated as TEQ from fish and found that it ranged from 26–138 pg/person/day TEQ (2001). A study of Dutch children (n=207) ages 1–5 estimated cumulative TEQ (PCB-TEQ and dioxin-TEQ) intake from a food questionnaire at 6–7 pg/kg/day . Our estimated levels were for only for PCDD/Fs TEQ (i.e., we did not include dioxin-like PCBs) and were therefore, as expected, considerably lower at 0.2-1.01 pg/person/day TEQ.
Calculated intake compared to previous reports – arsenic, dieldrin, endosulfan, mercury, chlordane, permethrin, chlorpyrifos
In the analysis by Dougherty et al. , arsenic, dieldrin, endosulfan, mercury, chlordane, and permethrin intakes were found to be in a similar range as in SUPERB participants. Chlorpyrifos intake, however, was reported as 8.0 x10-4 mg/kg/day in Dougherty versus 7.1-7.5x10-5 in our study for children and 2.2x10-5 for adults. To seek an explanation for this discrepancy, we examined the difference in foods included in our analysis and found that the food sources we omitted were: rice, peas, oats, grapefruit, and cabbage. Though Dougherty et al. did not present their top contributors to chlorpyrifos because it was well below the noncancer reference dosage, we found apples, grapes, peaches, tomatoes, and peppers to be top contributors in our study population. Another possible explanation for the much lower chlorpyrifos intake levels in our study is the EPA regulation imposed in 2001 (after the Dougherty study was conducted) that banned chlorpyrifos for in-home use.
We found our arsenic intake estimates to fall below the non-cancer benchmarks but to greatly exceed the cancer benchmarks. However, this calculation of cancer risk is an overestimation because the food measurements of arsenic in the FDA Total Diet Study (the database used in this study) were made for total arsenic whereas EPA cancer benchmarks are set for inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic, the more toxic form of arsenic, usually composes less than half of total arsenic. Previous studies of dietary exposures reconcile this discordance by citing a National Research Council analysis of the percentage of inorganic arsenic in total arsenic measurements made by the FDA Total Diet Study for 1991–1997 , which estimated inorganic arsenic intake to range from 0.066 to 0.34 μg/kg/day with an average of 0.14 μg/kg/day. Our estimated intake of total arsenic in SUPERB participants ranged from 0.14 (for older adults) to 1.22 (for preschool age children) μg/mg/kg. Considering that inorganic arsenic usually constitutes less than half of total arsenic, the estimates are actually within expected range for adult intake (estimated at 0.14-0.2 μg/kg/day). For children, our findings were more consistent with, or if anything on the low side in comparison with Yost and Tao et al., who found that children’s inorganic arsenic intake ranged from 1.6-6.2 μg/day with an average of 3.2 and that main sources were grain, fruits, rice, and milk (2004). Another study that analyzed inorganic arsenic in Total Diet Study foods found that inorganic arsenic was a higher percentage of total arsenic in rice and cereal grains compared to poultry and fish . It is difficult to know whether the source attribution differences are due to regional variability in diet, as we found not only cereal, but also poultry, salmon, tuna, and mushrooms were top contributors to total arsenic intake. With a large coast and a sizable demographic of Asian ancestry in California, fish consumption does tend to be higher than elsewhere in the nation.
Though the reference dosages are meant to serve as benchmarks for safe exposure, there is debate in the scientific community about the validity of the term “safe exposure.” One weakness of benchmarks is that compounds are evaluated individually, whereas real life exposure scenarios involve multiple exposure routes and multiple compounds acting upon target organs and/or systems. Since exposures may operate synergistically, additively, or even antagonistically, a more comprehensive approach to establishing safe contaminant levels in food would consider the hundreds of chemicals humans are exposed to on a daily basis through a number of different routes and from different sources. Regarding benchmarks as indicators of safe exposure, there is evidence that disease occurs below the existing prescribed limits; thus allowances may need to be revised in accordance with estimates that take multiple exposures into account especially for highly sensitive groups (e.g. young children). For example, in a study of 7-year-olds (n=917) in which cognitive brain function was assessed in relation to prenatal methylmercury exposure, investigators reported that “early dysfunction is detectable at exposure levels currently considered safe” . For lead, though there is no blood lead threshold for children by the EPA, the “action level” for clinical interventions was set at 10 μg/dL in 1991 by the CDC. Blood lead levels of concern have been progressively lowered since the 1960’s and despite observations of significant adverse effects occurring below a blood level of 10 μg/dL [51, 52] no changes have been made in the lead standard.
Top food contributors to contaminant exposure and dietary strategies to reduce contaminant intake – pesticides
The top contributors to pesticide intake among fruits and vegetables included tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, lettuce, broccoli, strawberries, spinach, pears, green beans, and celery. Six of the twelve top pesticide contributors from our study also appear on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen for highest fruit and vegetable contributors of pesticide intake (peaches, apples, peppers, strawberries, spinach, and celery). While our calculations included a handful of common current use pesticides, those of the EWG included all of those tested by the FDA.
Dietary strategies to reduce exposure to food contaminants by necessity would vary by compound. Based on our calculations of food items that contribute most to intake in this sample, reducing exposure to pesticides is possible by substituting organic produce and milk for non-organic produce and milk. It may come as a surprise that milk, in addition to fruits and vegetables, was found to be a top contributor to intake of chlorpyrifos. This can be explained by the application of chlorpyrifos to grazing fields or feed given to dairy cattle, which is prohibited in organic milk production .
Consumers can potentially lower their exposure to current use pesticides by selecting types of conventionally grown produce with lower measured levels of pesticides. They can also purchase organically grown produce. Considering that some of the produce items high in pesticides are among the highest consumed fruits and vegetables in the U.S., it may be more effective to target agricultural production practices rather than consumer food choices to increase availability (and lower the cost) of organically grown tomatoes, peaches, apples, peppers, grapes, and strawberries, for example.
Persistent organic pollutants & metals
Results from our study showed that milk was the leading dietary contributor of exposure to POPs for all age groups with animal foods and produce items making up the next four leading contributors. Fish was a major source of exposure resulting in arsenic, chlordane, dieldrin, dioxin, and DDT intake. Because POPs accumulate in animal fat, consuming a plant-based diet is one strategy to reduce exposure to POPs such as chlordane, DDE, and PCDD/Fs . Another strategy to reduce POPs exposure is to decrease consumption of meat, dairy, and fish, or to select the lowest fat option. Fish is practically the sole source for methylmercury, but since levels are known to vary widely by fish species, consumers can avoid fish with high concentrations of mercury (shark and swordfish) in favor of fish and shellfish with low concentrations (e.g., catfish, canned salmon, and scallops) . At the same time, consumers should recognize the health benefits of eating fish, and of particular importance for pregnant women and children, the well-established improvement in brain development from nutrients abundant in fish , but not in other foods.
While some produce items have measurable levels of lead and some POPs, organic produce consumption does not necessarily impact levels of metals or POPs. This is because accumulation of these compounds depends upon site-specific soil conditions that are not regulated by organic certification.
Reducing acrylamide in the diet can be accomplished by eliminating highly processed cereal, grain, and other carbohydrate products such as chips, cookies, French fries and crackers . Lowering refined carbohydrate intake, particularly those high in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugar, can not only reduce acrylamide intake but also contribute to lower weight gain and improved glucose tolerance among the increasingly diabetic U.S. population .
Limitations specific to the analysis herein relate to data collection in the SUPERB study and to complications inherent in estimating contaminant intake. These issues could have resulted in under- and over-estimations. Using the food frequency questionnaire allowed us to ask about foods known to be more heavily contaminated. However, to reduce participant burden, we asked about some foods as a group only, even though actual contaminant levels may vary by individual food item. For this reason, we recommend that future surveys ask about each food item individually to increase ease and accuracy of analysis. In our survey, if foods were grouped, the food consumed in greatest amounts (according to national averages) was selected to estimate the overall contaminant level. This might have skewed some results upward and others downward. For example, we asked about chips consumption in general, and while acrylamide levels are higher in potato chips (466.1 ppb) compared to tortilla chips (198.9 ppb), according to this procedure, we assigned the contaminant level for the most highly consumed item (tortilla chips have an average daily consumption of 5.6 grams compared to 4.0 grams for potato chips) which had lower contaminant levels and hence might have caused us to under-estimate exposure.
Exposures may have been overestimated if only a low percentage of items within a group exceeded the LOQ for particular contaminants (as was the case for chlorpyrifos in dairy). Benchmark hazard ratios for mercury levels may also have been overestimated because total mercury amounts were used while the benchmark level was for methylmercury only. However, according to our estimates, neither chlorpyrifos nor mercury intake exceeded benchmark values. Notably, the EPA’s cancer benchmark level for PCDD/Fs is three orders of magnitude higher than the WHO benchmark (which we applied to non-cancer endpoints), explaining why the cancer ratio of estimated risk to benchmark exceeds 100 while the non-cancer ratio of estimated hazard to benchmark is less than one. While the WHO benchmark is designated as appropriate for use in both cancer and non-cancer benchmarks, the EPA level was selected for consistency purposes in using EPA benchmarks, when available.
Other limitations relate to missing weight data and self-reported dietary data. Regarding missing data, imputations were made for a small percentage of adults (8.7%) and children (6.6%); we also calculated estimates based on non-imputed data and confirmed that the imputations did not bias our results. This study estimated contamination levels using published data from monitoring of food types and self-reported food consumption information rather than directly measuring those levels in the food consumed by study participants. Monitoring data sometimes indicate considerable variability across samples, though of course, each individual consumes many meals over the course of months or years, so that the use of averages is appropriate. Previous studies indicate that dietary surveys are a valuable tool for measuring food consumption, yet they share the same problems faced by all surveys: missing data and recall, reporting, and fatigue biases (i.e. long surveys). Of concern in self-reported dietary data is the potential for under-reporting of energy intake  which would lead to underestimation of toxic exposures. Previous research suggests that dietary survey respondents are inclined to over-report healthy foods and under-report unhealthy foods. A review by Carter and Whiting  found that about 80% of adult subjects under-reported what they ate and overall there was a tendency to under-report caloric intake by an average of 20-25%. A study on the validity of the FFQ found that foods most often over-reported were fruits and vegetables and that meat and dairy products were most often under-reported . If these biases occurred for parents reporting on their children’s diet in the current study, we may have overestimated exposures to pesticides (chlorpyrifos, permethrin, and endosulfan) for which fruits and vegetables are the main source, and may have underestimated exposures to some of the persistent organic pollutants (e.g., chlordane, dieldrin, DDE, and PCDD/Fs), for which meat is a main source. On the other hand, results of a previous study validated dietary data collected from parents about their 3- to 5-year old children (similar to ages of SUPERB study children) by showing agreement between energy expenditure using doubly labeled water and diet history (similar to the food frequency questionnaire) .