In a new study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, researchers studied how diet affects the levels of environmental contaminants in pregnant women and children.

“We found an association between what we consume and environmental contaminant levels in the body,” says Eleni Papadopoulou, researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

The results of the study show that:

  • Women who ate more than three fish meals per week and children who ate more than two fish meals per week had higher levels of PCB, PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances), arsenic and mercury in their blood.
  • High fruit consumption was associated with more pesticide residues in the urine in both women and children.
  • Children who ate organic food more than once a week had lower levels of pesticide residues and phthalates (substances found in plastic) in their urine, compared to children who did not eat organic food.
  • “Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to environmental contaminants but we have not considered health risks in this study. We only looked at whether diet is associated with contaminant levels in blood and urine,” explains Papadopoulou.

The study’s results support other research into the correlation between diet and environmental contaminants in the body.

Organic food contains fewer pesticide residues than conventionally-grown food because pesticides are banned in organic food production.

Food is a major source
For most people, food is the main source of a wide range of environmental contaminants. The researchers studied contaminants commonly found in blood and urine from people around the world.

Food can be contaminated at various stages during production, distribution and preparation at home. Low amounts of permitted pesticides, as well as environmental contaminants such as banned pesticides, PCBs, mercury and PFAS, are present in the food chain and can end up on the food table. In addition, regulated additives used in food packaging can be transferred to the food.

“When forming dietary advices, health authorities should consider exposure to environmental contaminants when assessing the effects of food in our health,” says Papadopoulou.

The researchers investigated the association between diet and the level of 33 environmental contaminants among 1,000 pregnant women and their children in pre-school age. The study participants came from Norway, Spain, Greece, the United Kingdom, Lithuania and France. In Norway, women had among the highest intake of meat and fish, and children among the highest intake of fruit.

Researchers studied how the consumption of various food groups (including meat, fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals) correlated to levels of these 33 environmental contaminants measured in blood and urine samples from the study participants. Researchers from across Europe in the HELIX project conducted the study, including several from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Data and biological samples from the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Study (MoBa) were used in the study.

Source: Norwegian Institute of Public Health

Full bibliographic information

Diet as a Source of Exposure to Environmental Contaminants for Pregnant Women and Children from Six European Countries (2019) Papadopolou, E. et al. Environmental Health Perspectives