Researchers from Germany warn about the dangers of aluminum in non-food products.
While some people may find it hard to believe, the truth is that people face exposure to and likely ingest some quantity of aluminum compounds daily.
This regular exposure occurs because aluminum is present in many products, including food, cosmetics, baking tools, and, of course, aluminum foil.
Researchers explain that aluminum compounds are present in drinking water, helping to purify it, as well as being an additive in processed foods, where they serve a range of purposes, including as an emulsifying agent and a food colorant.
Sometimes, fresh fruit or vegetables contain aluminum compounds. This happens because human activities, such as mining, have contaminated the soil with aluminum.
Some cosmetic products, particularly deodorants, contain aluminum salts that manufacturers include to enhance the products' antiperspirant effects.
This metal is also present in baking trays and other cooking utensils. However, its use is most apparent in cooking foil or takeaway tubs made out of it.
A new official report from the Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung, or Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in Berlin, Germany, indicates that while dietary exposure to aluminum compounds has been on the decline, people still ingest a relatively high amount of aluminum from other sources, which may prove harmful to health.
BfR researchers present their findings in a study paper that appears in the journal Archives of Toxicology. Thomas Tietz is the first author of the study.
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Non-food products top source of exposure
"After oxygen and silicon, aluminium is the third most abundant element and thus, the most common metal of the earth's crust," write Tietz and his colleagues.
The researchers estimated the aluminum content of foods available to the German public by looking at data from the German pilot total diet study and combining them with other datasets from the German National Consumption Study II.
They found that the average weekly diet-related aluminum exposure for an adult was 50% of the tolerable weekly intake set by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), namely 1 milligram per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight per week.
This, the researchers say, is a lower quantity than that indicated by previous studies. However, they warn that the aluminum intake remains at a potentially harmful level across all age groups. This is primarily due to its use in cosmetics and in food packaging and tools that contain uncoated aluminum.
"The most important non-dietary intake source of aluminum is dermal [skin] exposure from cosmetics, especially antiperspirants, which, according to a previous exposure estimation, may reach or even exceed the [tolerable weekly intake] derived by EFSA," the team cautions.
But Tietz and his colleagues emphasize that people can influence their exposure to and intake of aluminum compounds to try to reduce it.
They advise consumers to check whether the cosmetic products, such as deodorants and toothpaste, that they use contain aluminum compounds. If an individual needs to use these particular products, the researchers recommend that they do so sparingly.
While it may be more challenging for a person to identify and avoid aluminum in food, the researchers argue that following a varied diet and alternating between brands could help lower exposure to the potentially harmful substance.
Moreover, they suggest that people avoid preparing and storing food — especially acidic and salty ones — in uncoated aluminum dishes or pots, or in aluminum foil.
When it comes to shielding newborn babies against aluminum exposure, the researchers advise that as far as food goes, the breast is best. Where possible, breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months of the baby's life is the best option.
The BfR researchers also have a recommendation for manufacturers that market food products. They urge the use of raw materials that have a low aluminum content and appropriately coated materials when processing and packaging food products.
In their study paper, the researchers conclude that:
"[T]he use of [food contact materials] made of uncoated aluminium, or the frequent use of aluminium-containing cosmetic products, could result in a permanent exceedance of the [tolerable weekly intake] for a very large number of consumers in all age groups and lead to increased accumulation of aluminium in the body."
Previous studies have linked frequent exposure to high levels of aluminum to neurotoxicity (adverse health effects on the central or peripheral nervous system or both), Alzheimer's disease, and breast cancer.
Despite this, it remains unclear just how unsafe aluminum compounds are, whether they do cause harm, and under what circumstances.
While the EFSA leans toward stricter regulation of aluminum-containing food products, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry state that "[o]ral exposure to aluminum is usually not harmful."