The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may have underestimated the risk to pregnant women and children posed by consumption of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, according to a new risk assessment study.
The study , published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives by researchers from the National Defense Resources Council (NDRC), found that the FDA may have overestimated safe levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) for vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children, following the BP oil spill last year.
Among a number of issues raised in the paper, the authors question the FDA’s use of an average 80kg (176lb) bodyweight for setting levels of concern, although three-quarters of American women weigh less than this, and the average weight of a child aged 4-6 is 21.6kg.
“Because acceptable intake of contaminants is calculated as a fraction of bodyweight, using an inflated assumption in a risk assessment is systematically under-protective of the entire population that weighs below the level used in the calculation,” they wrote.
In addition, the authors said that the FDA may have underestimated levels of seafood consumption, basing its estimates on national figures, even though seafood consumption tends to be higher among residents on the Gulf coast.
They also said that the FDA did not evaluate potential risks for the developing fetus or child and, among other factors, may have underestimated the length of time an individual might be exposed to contaminants. The FDA’s risk assessment was based on a five-year exposure, while the authors said that PAHs may be detectable in seafood for up to 13 years following oil contamination.
“Taken together, these flaws illustrate a failure to incorporate the substantial body of evidence on the increased vulnerability of sub-populations to contaminants, such as PAHs, in seafood,” they concluded.
As a result of these findings, the NDRC has petitioned the FDA, asking it to set new safety limits for PAHs in food.
The FDA worked in conjunction with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) testing and retesting seafood from the Gulf, and both agencies have repeatedly said that seafood from the region is safe to eat. They have claimed that 99% of samples tested have had no detectable residue at all, and samples have passed tests at 100 to 1,000 times less that the levels of concern set for contaminants.
About 20 percent of fishing grounds in the Gulf were closed following the massive oil spill on April 20, 2010, but much of the area has been reopened for fishing since then.
However, many consumers continue to be concerned about the safety of seafood from the area, and an earlier study also published in Environmental Health Perspectives suggested that authorities should widen their testing procedures to include other potential contaminants.
Information on seafood testing in the Gulf, including all test results, is available online here .