The European Commission had asked EFSA to assess current exposure levels from food and other sources and determine whether the existing guidance, known as the Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake (PTWI), was still appropriate.
In a scientific opinion delivered yesterday, EFSA’s expert panel on contaminants, the CONTAM panel said there were potential concerns related to brain development for children but that risks were low to negligible for most adults.
Exposure to lead has fallen significantly since the 1970s thanks to measures to regulate levels in petrol, paint, food cans, and pipes but some concerns still remain surrounding lead entering the food chain.
Although house dust and soil can be sources of lead, EFSA said food is now the major source, with cereals, vegetables, and tap water contributing most to dietary exposure.
In its assessment of the scientific data, the CONTAM panel identified reduced intelligence quotient (IQ) levels in young children, and high blood pressure in adults, as the key health effects on which to base its assessment.
The panel found that there was no clear threshold under which it was confident that adverse health effects would not occur. It therefore concluded that the existing PTWI was no longer appropriate, but that a new guidance level could not be established either.
Nevertheless, the panel did present data that compares current exposure estimates for different groups of the population to levels above which adverse effects may occur.
Andrew Cutting, a spokesperson for EFSA, told FoodNavigator.com that the panel took a very conservative approach to defining levels where effects may start to occur. It is from this work that the panel concluded that there was a potential concern regarding neurodevelopmental effects in foetuses, infants, and children.
The scientific advice from EFSA will inform any follow action to be taken by the European Commission and the EU member states. It is the last in a series of EFSA risk assessments related to metals that has already covered arsenic, cadmium and uranium.
To read the EFSA opinion on lead in food, click here.