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BfR status seminar on uranium in foods and feedstuffs

26/2005, 01.08.2005

BfR assessment confirmed – at present, no identifiable risk to consumer health

The importance of uranium in mineral water and the questions about the risk from uranium-containing mineral fertilisers have been discussed over the last few weeks not only by experts but also, to an increasing degree, by the public at large. This prompted the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) to invite 22 external experts from research circles and competent authorities to a status seminar "Uranium, a heavy metal in foods and feedstuffs – Uranium, a radioactive element" in Berlin on 21 July. At the seminar the experts presented and discussed the current level of knowledge. The first result: at present, there is no identifiable health risk for consumers from uranium in foods and feedstuffs. At the same time, gaps in knowledge were determined concerning the migration of uranium from the soil to various stages of the food chain which are the subject of ongoing and planned research projects.

Uranium is a ubiquitous, radioactive heavy metal. Uranium compounds are natural components of certain rocks and minerals. They occur in water, soil and air. Traces of uranium are, therefore, detectable in many foods and feedstuffs as well as in some drinking and mineral waters.

On average, human beings take in between 1 and 4 microgram uranium from food. Around half comes from beverages and drinking water. Besides the health assessment by BfR of uranium in mineral water (cf. BfR Press Release 22/2005), the status seminar looked at the assessment of uranium in drinking water, too.

Other discussion contributions focused on the behaviour of uranium in the food chain and, more particularly, on the importance of uranium in phosphate-containing fertilisers. Selected questions on the behaviour of uranium in the soil and migration to the food chain are the subject of ongoing and planned research projects.

In the discussions of the hazard potential of uranium, the experts looked not only at its chemical toxicity but also at the radiotoxic importance of this element. There was general agreement that, in future, the health assessment of uranium in foods and feedstuffs should also look at the chemical action and radiation effect together. In conjunction with the findings on uranium contamination in ore mining, experience was confirmed at the seminar that when analysing samples and assessing uranium, the different chemical bonding forms must always be taken into account.

In principle, the intake of toxic substances with toxic potential should be kept as low as possible on precautionary grounds. Hence, in the context of precautionary consumer health protection, BfR recommends that steps be taken to reduce uranium uptake from mineral water. Separate rules should apply to mineral waters claiming to be “suitable for the preparation of infant formula”.

BfR notes that the current level of scientific knowledge presented at the status seminar does not point to any specific health risk for human beings from uranium in foods and feedstuffs.


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