How many tons of food are we willing to throw away in order to prevent one case of cancer?

A while ago, I read an article on arsenic in rice and drinking water, where the journalist presented different views from various researchers on how dangerous it is.

Arsenic is an element found naturally in the soil. The more arsenic there is in a farmland, the more of it can be taken up by plants. Rice is an important part of the diet in many countries of the world and it seems to take up arsenic from the soil. It means that there is always going to be some arsenic in the rice and no matter what we do.

Some of the researchers quoted in the article stated that the legal limits for arsenic in food are set too high.

What principles do we use for dealing with contaminated food - food that contains something we do not wish to have there, whether it is natural or not?

We live in a world where the population is growing at an incredible speed and where lack of food is a real problem in many places. In the western world, we are fighting against food waste. But what kind of attitude are we going to have to the contaminated food? There is a slight risk in eating slightly contaminated food. What is even more dangerous is to not receive the necessary nutrients.

Surrounded by risk warnings

One of the theories in social science says that we live in a risk society. This does not mean that we live in a more dangerous world. This means that we are much more conscious about our future and about reducing risks from all sorts of hazards. We are also surrounded by risk information from all sides. Is red wine harmful or healthy? Does red meat increase the risk of getting cancer or not?

There is arsenic in rice, mercury in freshwater fish, cesium in mushrooms and radon in the basements, and this list could go on forever. We change our food habits; avoid buying products with parabens, demand stricter regulations and greater control of everything we consume.

The precautionary principle

Arsenic is carcinogenic and can be compared to radioactivity. Both arsenic and radiation are harmful to humans in high doses. However, when it comes to low doses, the picture becomes much more complicated.

For both chemicals and radiation, it is difficult to determine effects at low doses, particularly those that occur over time. Some of the chemical elements are vital in small doses, and lethal in high.

Since there is so much uncertainty around the health effects, we use a precautionary principle - we want to be on the safe side. In radiation protection, we also use another fundamental principle called ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable). The principle dictates that we should keep the doses as low as possible, but without resorting to drastic measures if the radiation level is already low. Measures must be "reasonable." I have previously written about the legal limits for radiation levels in food and that they do not divide it into "safe" and "dangerous". The limits are set very low, because of the precautionary principle.

You do not get sick from eating something that is contaminated a bit over the limit!

Nuclear accidents and food

The historic nuclear accidents have shown us how large areas can become contaminated with radioactive substances, both in the country of the accident and in the areas far from the accident. Here, I am not talking about those areas where contamination levels are so high that people have to be evacuated and never get to move back. I am talking about the areas where doses to humans are very low, but where the contamination is in the soil and can be taken up by plants and animals over time.

There are many ways of dealing with contaminated food after a nuclear accident. We can stop producing food, use it as feed for the animals or discard it. The last strategy is still the most common one, at least in the beginning. How contaminated this food is, varies greatly. The levels of radioactivity in this food might be slightly above the legal limit, but it cannot be released on the market. Moreover, consumers will probably not buy food if there are the slightest rumors of radioactivity in it.

Reindeer meat after Chernobyl

A lot of reindeer meat in Norway was contaminated with radioactivity in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. 545 tons of reindeer meat was discarded the first year, because the levels of radioactivity in the meat were over the legal limits. One of the measures Norwegian authorities implemented at that time was increasing the legal limit for radioactivity in reindeer. The majority of the population ate reindeer meat so rarely that higher radiation levels in meat would not cause them to exceed the annual dose limit. Sami, who eat a lot of reindeer meat, received dietary advice and an opportunity to buy meat with lower levels of radioactivity. In addition, they were offered to regularly measure how much radioactivity they had in the body, in order to control the intake of contaminated food. At the same time, researchers developed methods that could be used to reduce radiation levels in reindeer meat.

With this measure, authorities managed to avoid discarding large quantities of reindeer meat. Reindeer herding could continue in the contaminated areas and an important part of Sami culture was preserved. The story of reindeer meat, radioactivity and the Norwegian way of dealing with it, is well known among our colleagues who work with radiation protection in Europe. They use it frequently as an example of a good solution which balanced multiple social interests.

But would the same kind of strategy work now, or with other types of food?

How many tons of food are we willing to throw away in order to prevent a statistically possible case of cancer? We must dare to ask the question whether it is such a good idea to keep the legal limits as low as possible, if large quantities of food could be thrown away because of that.

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Published 20. April 2017 - 14:21 - Updated 20. April 2017 - 14:21