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FDA may underestimate danger of BP oil spill to seafood consumers.

THE FOOD and Drug Administration needs to update the methods it uses to assess the safety of foods, including seafood potentially contaminated in the April 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study presented at APHA's 139th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in November.

After the spill, FDA mandated the use of two tests to assess the safety of seafood. The first test is a sniff test, and the second is a chemical test for 13 poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the main constituent of crude oil. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are known carcinogens and have been linked to developmental problems.

FDA also calculated allowable thresholds, known as levels of concern, for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in each type of Gulf seafood it tested. To develop those levels of concern, FDA made assumptions about the population of people who could potentially be exposed, said APHA member Karen Wong, MD, MPH, who presented the research at the Annual Meeting. Wong, who conducted the research while a resident physician in the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said the research indicates that those assumptions likely resulted in an underestimation of the exposure to the chemicals in seafood.

Those assumptions included high body weight, which does not account for women and smaller people consuming the food; low estimates of seafood consumption; and short exposure duration, she said.


In the FDA assessment, for example, body weight was estimated to be about 80 kg, or 176 pounds, which Wong said under-protects nearly 75 percent of women and children.

The agency also did not properly account for the consumption of seafood by pregnant women and the effects that consumption may have on developing fetuses, she said.

FDA also assumed a much shorter duration of exposure to contaminated Gulf fish than the research suggests, said the study. FDA assumed the effects of the spill will be felt for five years, but lessons learned from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill indicate that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are still detectable up to 13 years later.

Based on their findings, the researchers recalculated levels of concern of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and found that for two types, benzopyrene and napthtalene, the recommended thresholds were many times lower than the level set by FDA. The study found that up to 53 percent of Gulf shrimp samples were above the levels of concern for pregnant women and people who eat a lot of seafood.

The research suggests that FDA needs to reevaluate the levels of concern it has set for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Gulf seafood, taking into account a broader range of possibilities about who will eat the seafood, how much they will eat and the potential health effects of that consumption, Wong said.

The study was published online in Environmental Health Perspectives on Oct. 12. For the study, visit
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Author:Tucker, Charlotte
Publication:The Nation's Health
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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