The need to automate and speed up food production to keep up with the population explosion during the 20th century has led producers to make hasty decisions regarding the chemicals that are added in food processing. The same can be said of drinking water supplies. Some of these substances have been found to be potentially harmful to human health. Although efforts are being made to replace most of them with healthier alternatives, humans continue to be exposed to many potentially hazardous agents. Here are three dangerous substances that people still ingest nowadays.
Fluorine compounds are prominently used in public water supplies owing to the beneficial properties for dental health. Water fluoridation reaches more than 6% of the world's population, but it is highly controversial. Concerns revolve around the fact that fluoride is actually moderately toxic (pure fluorine is highly toxic and lethal), and long-term exposure to the chemical causes numerous health problems (most notably, aberrant bone formation).
Scientific consensus is that this compound can be added to public water supplies without posing risks to human health as long as it doesn't exceed a strict concentration level (1.5 mg/L according to the WHO). Nevertheless, numerous health and human right institutions vouch for the end of water fluoridation on the grounds that the risks to human health haven't been appropriately studied. In fact, improper water treatment in Asian and African countries, where the concentration of fluoride in some natural water supplies vastly exceeds safety levels, results in millions of fluoride poisoning victims.
This compound is not used directly in food, but it is prevalent in food packaging and plastic containers. It is an endocrine disrupting chemical featuring estrogen-like properties. Despite the real risk of food contamination from food packaging, several major institutions, including the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), consider BPA to pose no health risk at current exposure levels. Nevertheless, a few studies have found non-trivial associations between BPA and problematic behavioral development in children, metabolic disorders, infertility and cancer.
Acrylamide is formed when certain types of food are heated at high temperatures (>120 C) over extended periods of time. This highly toxic compound is found in baked and fried starchy foods, roasted barley tea, dried pears, coffee and black olives. It is neurotoxic and potentially carcinogenic. Acrylamide also causes skin irritation. The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in the US classifies it as an extremely hazardous substance, and the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) labels it as a Group 2A carcinogen. Research efforts are currently under way to determine the exact extent to which acrylamide is present in foods. Tobacco is the greatest source of acrylamide.