Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

Chemicals as contaminants in the food chain: an NOE for research, risk assessment and education

Final Report Summary - CASCADE Chemicals as contaminants in the food chain: an NOE for research, risk assessment and education)

Understanding the health risk of chemical pollutants in food is a complex multidisciplinary task. There are many aspects, such as how much contamination is taken up by the body and whether effects are different for different people. The chemicals could interact with one another in the diet. European research on this health risk is currently fragmented and disorganised, resulting in poor information for consumers and policy-makers alike. A Network of Excellence, known as CASCADE, brought scientists together to address gaps in the knowledge, train young researchers, and communicate useful evidence and information to those who need to know. The CASCADE network of 16 academic institutes and two small companies was a five-year project. It focused on chemicals known as 'endocrine disruptors' which affect hormone receptors in the cell nucleus. Such chemicals, which include dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), accumulate in both the environment and in the body. They can influence gene expression and have potentially serious effects on development and health. The risks from these contaminants are poorly understood, and in some countries such chemicals continue to be manufactured and used.

The network carried out a joint programme of research, uniting scientists from different disciplines, including physiology, chemistry and toxicology. They reviewed global knowledge in the field, and make an inventory of active research in partner organisations. Resources, such as antibodies and relevant genes, were collected and stored in a central library, and researcher exchange will be encouraged and financed.

The project has identified areas where lack of knowledge prevents accurate risk assessment. For example, it is difficult to measure people's exposure to many contaminants because the toxins are altered in the body. Exposure to, rather than quantity in food, is the crucial statistic when it comes to health risk, and it depends on your sex, age and diet. Chemicals produced by the body in response to the toxins, known as biological markers, must be identified to indicate how much contaminant is active in a person. Scientists have yet to understand how the chemicals cause conditions such as cancer or infertility, and there is little knowledge concerning long-term low dose effects.

There are opportunities for the commercial exploitation of results, because cheap testing methods are needed for endocrine disrupting chemicals, in anticipation of future European Union legislation. CASCADE has staffed a 'sciencesociety' office at the Karolinska Institute, who communicates the research on endocrine disruptors to European food safety agencies and consumer organisations, distributing brochures and a quarterly newsletter.