The health loss due to the presence of chemical food constituents or contaminants is more difficult to quantify than that due to microbiological contamination. A distinction is drawn between chemical contaminants and those chemical components which are naturally present in certain foods, such as nitrates, natural toxins and allergens.
In the case of chemical contamination, there are usually no acute effects but there can be chronic health effects, such as cancer, which become apparent only after a long period of time. Because of the delay involved, such effects can rarely be directly attributed to exposure to any one chemical substance. Estimates of safe (and unsafe) intake levels are usually based on experiments involving animals. The safe intake levels for many chemical food contaminants have been established in this way. In general, the intake of such substances in the Netherlands is well below the identified safe levels.
Provides an overview of the chemical substances found in food and posing some health risk, together with an estimate of the possible health gain (in DALYs) if exposure to these substances is avoided outright. In the case of allergens and certain natural toxins (phycotoxins and phytotoxins) there can indeed be an immediate and observable health effect.
It is estimated that food allergies account for an annual health loss in the order of 1,000 DALYs. However, allergens form a separate category since the effects are partly due to genetic susceptibility and therefore vary from one person to another. However, given the nature of the estimation methods used, it seems likely that the microbiological contamination levels have been underestimated (based as they are solely on information concerning proven food contamination by known agents).
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Conversely, the health risks posed by the chemical contamination of food are more likely to have been overestimated, since these often concern incidental measurements in excess of the identified safe levels, and because of the safety factors used and/or the conservative method of risk assessment applied (particularly with regard to genotoxic carcinogens).