Survey of metals in national diet

Concentrations of aluminium and mercury in the national diet were higher in 2000 than three years earlier, according to a survey by the Food Standards Agency.1 People's intakes of arsenic, lead and mercury had the greatest potential toxicological significance, but the Government's advisers concluded that they are of little concern.

The data for 12 metals and other elements are from the 2000 UK Total Diet Study, continuing a programme which began in 1966.

Dietary intakes of most metals have been on a downward trend for 20-30 years and this continued in 2000, with increased levels in food being recorded for only two metals.

Aluminium intakes were one-third higher than in 1997, probably due to the use of additives containing the metal in some bakery products. However, intakes remained well below UN guideline values.

Mercury levels in food rose in 2000 due to a one-third increase in the metal's presence in fish, which contribute two-thirds of average mercury intakes.

In a worst case scenario, mercury intake by the "high level" group of children of 1.5-4.5 years exceeded UN guidelines by 17% in 2000. However, the guidelines apply solely to methyl mercury because of its neurotoxic effects, and this form of the metal was not measured separately in the Total Diet Study. The Committee on Toxicity has recommended that future surveys should provide speciated measurements instead of a single value for total organic and inorganic mercury.

Other highlights included some exceedances of UN guideline values for nickel, though CoT dismisses these as of no toxicological significance. Lead intakes from food declined by two-thirds between 1997 and 2000, but CoT has recommended that efforts continue to reduce exposure from all sources due to the absence of a threshold for the health effects of lead.

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