Examining how a chemical enters the food supply

Health and safety experts are trying to solve a fast-food mystery: why does a probable human carcinogen appear in such foods as French fries and potato chips, and how much of a health risk does it pose? Nga Lien Tran, Dr.Ph., M.P.H. ’85, senior managing scientist at Exponent and adjunct assistant professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, discussed the puzzle at the November 2003 Interdisciplinary Risk Assessment Forum sponsored by the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at the Peabody Museum. According to Tran, studies conducted by the Swedish National Food Administration and researchers from Stockholm University confirmed in April 2002 that unexpectedly high levels of acrylamide—a chemical used in making cosmetics, plastics and adhesives—were found in some starchy foods after frying or baking at high temperatures. The darker and crispier the food, the more acrylamide was present.

The good news, Tran said, is that neurotoxicity resulting from acrylamide exposure—which has been known to kill fish and paralyze cows—doesn’t appear to be a concern. However, people who consume a lot of these foods may increase their lifelong cancer risk by an order of one in a thousand. “We’ve let the public know, and we’re continuing to monitor and measure,” she said. “At this point that’s all we can do.”


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