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Challenges in assessing the health risks of consuming vegetables in metal-contaminated environments

Journal article
Authors A. Augustsson
T. Uddh-Soderberg
M. Filipsson
I. Helmfrid
M. Berglund
H. Karlsson
Johan Hogmalm
Andreas KO Karlsson
S. Alriksson
Published in Environment International
Volume 113
Pages 269-280
ISSN 0160-4120
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Earth Sciences
Pages 269-280
Language en
Keywords Contaminated sites, Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Exposure, Vegetable, potentially toxic elements, heavy-metals, homegrown vegetables, human, exposure, waste-water, food crops, arsenic speciation, soil, contaminants, garden vegetables, glassworks sites
Subject categories Environmental Sciences, Plant production, Food Science


A great deal of research has been devoted to the characterization of metal exposure due to the consumption of vegetables from urban or industrialized areas. It may seem comforting that concentrations in crops, as well as estimated exposure levels, are often found to be below permissible limits. However, we show that even a moderate increase in metal accumulation in crops may result in a significant increase in exposure. We also highlight the importance of assessing exposure levels in relation to a regional baseline. We have analyzed metal (Pb, Cd, As) concentrations in nearly 700 samples from 23 different vegetables, fruits, berries and mushrooms, collected near 21 highly contaminated industrial sites and from reference sites. Metal concentrations generally complied with permissible levels in commercial food and only Pb showed overall higher concentrations around the contaminated sites. Nevertheless, probabilistic exposure assessments revealed that the exposure to all three metals was significantly higher in the population residing around the contaminated sites, for both low-, medianand high consumers. The exposure was about twice as high for Pb and Cd, and four to six times as high for As. Since vegetable consumption alone did not result in exposure above tolerable intakes, it would have been easy to conclude that there is no risk associated with consuming vegetables grown near the contaminated sites. However, when the increase in exposure is quantified, its potential significance is harder to dismiss - especially when considering that exposure via other routes may be elevated in a similar way.

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