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)

Chips and french-fries may not kill you after all

A recent study by Swedish and American cancer epidemiologists, led by Gunnar Steineck, professor in clinical cancer epidemiology (Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm), shows that moderate intake of acrylamide via foodstuffs like potato chips and french-fries gives no measurable increase of the incidence of cancer in humans, at least not in the colon and rectum, nor in the kidneys or in the urinary bladder. The results are published in the January 28, 2003 issue of British Journal of Cancer. Based on studies on animals that were given very high doses, acrylamide has hitherto been classed as "probably cancerogenic" by IARC, the expert organ for cancer questions at the World Health Organization. The IARC is presently reviewing the available data on acrylamide and cancer and expects to publish a report later in 2003.

Fries-and-chips scare

When the discovery of high acrylamide content in potato chips and other deep-fried foodstuffs was made public in April 2002, a formidable cancer-scare spread among consumers. Sales of potato-chips and fries plummeted and potato-farmers started looking for alternative crops.

Dying cows and shaking hardhats

The scare was further fanned by reminiscences of a couple of earlier environmental scandals involving acrylamide. Two prestigious tunnel projects in the late 1990's, one in southern Sweden (Hallandsåsen) and one at the new Oslo airport (Romeriksporten), met with groundwater leakage problems. In both cases the builders tried to seal their leaking tunnels by applying a acrylamide-based chemical sealant, Rhoca-Gil. Hundreds of tons of the sealant was used, a far greater quantity than the sealant was intended for. This resulted in such a huge acrylamide content in the leakage water (a whooping 26 000 micrograms per liter - the EU limit for acrylamide in drinking water is 0.25 micrograms per liter) that tunnel workers, particularly at Hallandsåsen, developed disturbing neurological problems and cattle drinking the leakage water died. Learning that their crispy snacks contained the same stuff that killed cows and gave construction workers shaking hands was enough for Scandinavian consumers to quit chip-munching in short order.

The potato-chip scare resulted in attempts by food manufacturers to develop new frying methods (mainly by lowering the frying temperature) in order to decrease the acrylamide content of their products. This has been rather successful. The acrylamide content in chips is now much lower than it was at the start, and by the end of 2002 the consumption of chips and fries has picked up again.

Not that new

The new study of cancerogenic effects of acrylamide on humans is actually not all that new. What is new is merely a specially designed statistical analysis. The background is as follows: In 1995 a Swedish group or researchers identified 987 patients from Stockholm with tumors in their intestines, bladders and kidneys. The patients, as well as a comparably-sized control group of randomly selected healthy individuals, were interviewed about their eating habits during five years before the patients developed their symptoms. The results, reported in 1999, said that it could not be proven that fried foods caused cancer in humans.

Back to their tables

The group has now gone back to their data and analyzed it with respect to acrylamide intake. No connection between incidence of cancer in the specified organs and acrylamide intake could be shown. On the other hand, the intake of acrylamide among the investigated individuals was rather low, 27 micrograms per day on the average. Only 2 % of the individuals investigated had an acrylamide intake of more than 60 micrograms per day. According to calculations, the risk of getting cancer should increase when the acrylamide intake is higher than 80 micrograms per day.

An occasional orgy is unlikely to kill you

What is the final verdict? The jury is still out - this is probably the safest conclusion that can be drawn at the present stage. But it also seems probable that you will not die just because you indulge in an occasional orgy involving potato chips.

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