A chemical known as acrylamide that is found in fried and baked goods is unlikely to cause reproductive problems in humans who consume it in their food and water, an expert panel concluded Wednesday.
But experts remain concerned that the chemical, which is known to cause cancer and neurotoxicity in rats and their offspring at high doses, could still lead to ill effects in industrial workers who handle or breathe it.
Acrylamide is has hundreds of industrial uses, including cosmetics, garments, grouting, and as a treatment for drinking water. It gained widespread public attention in April 2002, when Swedish food regulators announced that they had found the chemical in several foods, including French fries, potato chips, and baked goods.
The findings prompted other countries’ authorities, including the US Food and Drug Administration to launch tests of their own. FDA researchers confirmed that acrylamide accumulates naturally in foods cooked at temperatures above 248 degrees Fahrenheit (120 degrees Celsius).
This led investigators to suggest that adverse effects seen in animal studies could occur in the general human population. But experts reported on Wednesday that this is unlikely to be the case.
“Considering the low level of estimated human exposure derived from a variety of sources, the Expert Panel expressed negligible concern for adverse reproductive and developmental effects for exposures in the general population,” according to the report by members of a panel advising the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The panel’s final report is due in 4 to 6 weeks.
Experts therefore recommend against widespread further study of possible reproductive effects of acrylamide in food and water.
“We don’t recommend doing those studies because we know the doses are so low that you’re just going to spend a lot of money with no results,” said Dr. Lawrence J. Fisher, a toxicologist from Michigan State University and a member of the panel.
However, Wednesday’s report did not address possible cancer-causing effects of acrylamide in the food supply.
Data from rat studies indicate that acrylamide can damage sperm enough to cause developmental problems in offspring at doses of around 15,000 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day. The typical non-smoker takes in 0.5 to 0.8 micrograms per kilogram per day, while the average smoker may take in 4 micrograms per kilogram per day, according to the committee’s report.
The panel said that it has “some concern” that male industrial workers exposed to acrylamide may experience problems having children or that their offspring may have neurological problems.
Estimates of exposure for workers who handle acrylamide range from 2 to 22 micrograms per kilogram per day but may run as high as 52 micrograms per kilogram per day, according to the report.
Experts recommend large-scale studies to see if occupational exposures lead to neurotoxic effects in the children of workers. Acrylamide can damage sperm, leading to problems including muscle weakness and poor balance in offspring of exposed mammals.
“There’s insufficient data to be certain. That uncertainty raises a level of concern,” said Dr. Robert Chapin, a toxicologist with Pfizer, Inc., in Groton, Connecticut
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD