Europe Investigates Risks of Nitrosamines in Food and Medicines Linked to Cancer

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued a warning about the risks posed by nitrosamines, chemicals found in both food products and medicines which have been linked to cancer. Nitrosamines are organic compounds found in water and food that occur in a chemical reaction between nitrites or nitrates and certain amines. They may be carcinogenic, meaning that they may cause cancer, and genotoxic, meaning that they may damage DNA. Studies on animals have shown that nitrosamines are associated with a higher risk of liver tumours, for example. The presence of at least 10 of these chemicals in everyday food is concerning, according to EFSA’s latest risk assessment. Nitrosamines have been found in several products, including cured meats, processed fish, cocoa, beer, and other alcoholic drinks. Meat and meat products are the largest food groups contributing to nitrosamine exposure, according to the agency.

Nitrosamines can also be found in processed vegetables, cereals, milk and dairy products, and fermented, pickled or spiced foods. EFSA conceded, however, that there are “knowledge gaps” about the presence of nitrosamines in specific food categories, so to protect consumers, the risk assessment was based on a worst-case scenario. Dr Dieter Schrenk, who chairs EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain, suggested that balancing one’s diet by eating a wider variety of foods could help consumers reduce their intake of nitrosamines.

However, other reports reveal that nitrosamines can also be found in certain drugs, which could lead to a reassessment of their market authorisation if the levels of these contaminants exceed an “acceptable intake”. The Pharmaceutical Journal, which first reported the news, said the European Medicines Agency had found approximately 20 pharmaceutical products that may contain excessive levels of nitrosamines. A spokesperson for the EMA stated that authorities were “carefully considering” the need to take regulatory action to protect public health while ensuring that critical medicines remain available to patients.

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In 2019, ranitidine, an over-the-counter antacid medication sold under the brand name Zantac, was withdrawn from the US and EU markets due to the presence of nitrosamines. This decision was taken because alternative treatments were available. Companies producing sartans, a class of blood-pressure regulators, were also required to review their manufacturing processes in 2019 after a major recall in 2018 because of the presence of nitrosamines.

The presence of nitrosamines in food products and medicines must be closely monitored to ensure public safety. It is vital that regulatory agencies, manufacturers, and distributors work together to prevent excessive levels of these chemicals from contaminating consumer products. Consumers should be aware of the risks and take steps to reduce their exposure to nitrosamines by consuming a balanced diet and adhering to recommended dosage levels for medications. By working together, we can safeguard public health and reduce the prevalence of cancer and other illnesses related to nitrosamine exposure.

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