Acrylamide is an organic solid (C3H5NO) not found in nature, but in plastics, resins, and dyes. And those French fries you had for lunch.

Used as a basic research laboratory chemical, acrylamide is used industrially to make plastic, to improve production from oil wells (it helps control fluid losses); in making organic chemicals and dyes (for printing, permanent press fabrics, contact lenses, adhesive tapes, explosives, resins for home appliances and auto parts); in the processing of paper pulp and mineral ore; in the construction of dam foundations and tunnels (in grout). Acrylamide is also used in drinking water treatment: it coagulates and traps suspended solids, which can then be removed.

Acrylamide is neurotoxic and genotoxic. In the short term, acrylamide can cause damage to the nervous system, drowsiness, hallucinations, confusion, and weakness and incoordination in the legs. Glycidamide, a metabolite of acrylamide, binds to DNA and can cause genetic damage. Long term exposure, over a lifetime, can cause damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, difficulty in walking and speaking, paralysis; and cancer (at least in rats --it’s called a "probable carcinogen" in humans). Rats exposed to acrylamide have also experienced male reproductive toxicity, male germ cell mutations, and tumor formation.

So how does one limit one’s exposure? Number one is to not work in an occupation (tunnel grouter, for example) where you’d be exposed regularly to dermal contact or inhalation of acrylamide. Number two is stop smoking (it’s in tobacco smoke). The general public gets some exposure from lotions, shaving cream, hair gels, and shampoos that contain it, but mainly from drinking water (not all of the acrylamide coagulates; what’s left in the water is a contaminant). And in 2002, fried food was added to the list of common sources.

Margareta Törnqvist at the University of Stockholm and her research team tested 100 foods and found that fried foods, notably potato chips and French fries generally contained high levels compared to many other food groups. Other food groups which may contain low as well as high levels of acrylamide are deep fried, fried, or oven baked starchy foods, such as breakfast cereals, fried potato products, biscuits, cookies, bread, and snacks such as popcorn. Neither the raw foods nor the boiled versions contained detectable levels of acrylamide. How and why acrylamide forms in carbohydrates at high temperatures is unknown. Swedish researchers were so shocked by the levels found that they announced their results in a National Food Administration press conference in April 2002 before their study had been peer reviewed.

Since then, other European researchers and the World Health Organization have been mobilizing to do more study on this potential public health problem. One test conducted for the U.S.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest found that the amount of acrylamide in a large order of fast-food french fries was at least 300 times more than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of water. Inconsistencies across brands, too, have not been explained (why do McDonald’s french fries have nearly twice as much acrylamide as Wendy’s?) As of this writing no one is suggesting a major change in diet, as variations in consumer behavior are difficult to study and change (Eliminating high acrylamide foods such as potato chips won’t do much good if you replace it with increased consumption of low acrylamide foods like tortilla chips). More study on the formation of acrylamides in carbohydrates may lead to changes in industrial food processing. Still, press releases from public health agencies are reminding people that fruit, vegetables, cereal products and bread, are better for you than fat-rich products.

"Acrylamide Chemical Backgrounder." Natinal Safety Council. <> (27 June 2002)
Associated Press. "Scientists Seek Acrylamide Study." New York Times. 27 June 2002. <> (27 June 2002)
Busk, Leif and Karin Gustafsson, et. al. "Information about acrylamide in food" Swedish National Food Administration . 24 April 2002. <> (27 June 2002)
CSPI Press Release. "New Tests Confirm Acrylamide in American Foods" Center for Science in the Public Interest. 25 June 2002. <> (27 June 2002)
"Consumer Factsheet on: Acrylamide." U.S. EPA Office of Water. 22 May 2002. <; (27 June 2002)
"ITER Peer Review Meeting Summary, November 16 and 17, 1998,University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine." Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment 14 June 2002. <> (27 June 2002)
"Opinion on the results of the Risk Assessment of: ACRYLAMIDE (Human Health and the Environment) - CAS No. 79-06-1 - EINECS No. 201-173-7. Report version : October 2000 carried out in the framework of Council Regulation (EEC) 793/93 on the evaluation and control of the risks of existing substances." Europa - Food Safety: from the Farm to the Fork 6 March 2001. <> (27 June 2002)