The first comprehensive assessment of common synthetic chemicals found in UK foods has been completed by researchers at the University of Birmingham.

In the study, nearly 400 food samples were tested for evidence of organophosphate esters (OPEs) — chemicals used as flame retardants in furnishings and textiles, building, food packaging materials and decorating materials, as well in various other consumer products.

While the levels found in all the samples were 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 check their use of these chemicals and start exploring alternatives. Food producers should also investigate supply chains to better understand where contaminants might be introduced.

“Organophosphates are toxic to human health at high levels, or with long term exposure, and their use is increasing worldwide,” says lead author Muideen Gbadamosi. “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.

“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.”

In the study, published in Science of the Total Environment, the team divided sample products into 15 food groups, that were either animal-derived products or plant-derived products and tested for eight different OPEs. They found concentrations were highest in milk and milk products, followed by those in cereal and cereal products. Concentrations were lowest in chickens’ eggs.

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