Aluminum pot “dadesen” in Ghana is an emerging public health concern
Cooking pots and other kitchen utensils made of aluminum have been a common household commodity for ages, especially in our part of the world. A recent report published by the Ghanaian Times online via https://www.ghanaiantimes.com.gh/health-alert-aluminum-cooking-pot-causes-heart-attack-stroke/ has however sounded caution to the general public on the use of these aluminum cooking pots due to a myriad of reasons. The report was by Occupational Knowledge International (OK International), a non-profit environmental organisation based in San Francisco, and was published by the Ghanaian Times from the study titled: ‘Metal exposures from source materials for artisanal aluminum cookware’. This study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.
The authors cautioned that the use of cookware made from recycled aluminum, results in lead poisoning and other harmful health effects such as stroke and cardiovascular diseases – including heart attacks – in Ghana. Their findings indicate alarming levels of lead and other metal exposures from cookware, popularly known as aluminum cooking pots or ‘dadesen’ in Ghana.
The report further asserts that blood lead levels have decreased following the removal of lead from gasoline in most parts of the world, but remain elevated in many low and middle-income countries in comparison to the US and European Union. A recent study in Ghana further showed that 65 percent of blood donors had elevated blood lead levels greater than 5 µg/dl. They concluded that all of the cookware made from seven separate waste streams typically used for this purpose, released harmful concentrations of lead, cadmium, chromium and other metals.
Our Take on the subject
We take a critical look at non-stick cookware in general as they contain a manmade chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA or C8. According to the American Cancer Society (2020), “PFOA has the potential to be a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. Studies further have found that PFOA is present worldwide at very low levels in just about everyone’s blood.” Animal studies have also presented a link between PFOA exposure and cancer development.
According to a 2017 report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “In laboratory animals given large amounts, PFOA can affect growth and development, reproduction, and injure the liver”. In addition to cancer concerns, there are some other highly serious health repercussions – including liver damage, infertility, delay in growth and development that can result from PFOA exposure.
Another study by Fei et al., (2008) from UCLA, prenatal exposure to perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) has been linked to developmental delays in offspring. The study found that mothers with high levels of PFOAs in their blood have toddlers and babies who are less likely to reach developmental milestones early.
A 2010 article by Boyles, demonstrates that the chemicals used to make non-stick cookware may lead to some major health concerns. For example, high cholesterol has now been linked to cookware chemicals. A study of 12,000 children living in Ohio and West Virginia were tested for blood levels of the PFOA and PFOS (the two chemicals commonly found in nonstick cookware). The researchers observed that the children with the highest levels of these two toxic chemicals were also more likely to have abnormally high levels of both total cholesterol and LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol.
According to Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at EWG, non-stick pans can produce toxic fumes that can create allergies and flu-like symptoms for users. The American Cancer Society (2020) points out: “Studies in lab animals have found that exposure to PFOA increases the risk of certain tumors of the liver, testicles, mammary glands (breasts) and pancreas in animals. In general, well-conducted studies in animals do a good job of predicting which exposures cause cancer in people”.
According to the Health Library (2020), aluminum toxicity occurs when a person ingests or breathes high levels of aluminum into the body. Aluminum is the most plentiful metal in the earth’s crust. It is present in the environment combined with other elements such as oxygen, silicon and fluorine. It further states that exposure to aluminum is usually not harmful, but exposure to high levels can cause serious health problems. It is also found in small amounts in the air, water and in food.
A retrospective scientific report led by Aguilar et al. (2008), found that aluminum is naturally occurring in most foods – including fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, grains and dairy products. The report also found that some of the aluminum we consume comes from processed food additives such as preservatives, coloring agents, anti-caking agents and thickeners. The interesting thing is that another retrospective study by Saiyed & Yokel, (2005) and one prospective study by Sato et al., (2014) found that commercially produced foods containing food additives may contain more aluminum than home-cooked food.
West, (2017) article further explains that the actual amount of aluminum present in the food you eat depends largely on the following factors:
- Absorption:How readily a food absorbs and holds on to aluminum
- Soil:The aluminum content of the soil the food was grown in
- Packaging:If the food has been packaged and stored in aluminum packaging
- Additives:Whether the food has had certain additives added during processing
Aluminum is also ingested through medications that have a high aluminum content, such as antacids. The fact is that, the aluminum content of food and medication isn’t considered to be a problem, as only a tiny amount of the aluminum you ingest is actually absorbed and the rest is passed in your fecal matter. Additionally, in healthy people, absorbed aluminum is later excreted in the urine according to two retrospective studies (Greger & Baier, 1983; Soni et al., 2001). Thus, on a daily basis, the small amount of aluminum we ingest is considered safe (Greger, 1992; Cuciureanu et al. 2000; Aguilar et al.2008)
Aluminum cooking pots?
Most of your aluminum intake comes from food (Soni et al., 2001; Bassioni et al., 2012). This notwithstanding, studies have affirmed that aluminum foils, cooking utensils and containers can leach aluminum into our food (Soni et al., 2001; Bassioni et al., 2012). Aluminum foils may also increase the aluminum content of your diet. The amount of aluminum that passes into your food when cooking with aluminum foils, for instance, is affected by a number of things, such as:
- Temperature:Cooking at higher temperatures
- Foods:Cooking with acidic foods, such as tomatoes, cabbage and rhubarb
- Certain ingredients:Using salts and spices in your cooking
However, the amount that permeates your food when cooking can vary. For example, one study by Turhan, (2006) found that cooking red meat in aluminum foils could increase its aluminum content by between 89% and 378%. This creates concern in a prospective study by Bassioni et al., (2012), which found regular use of aluminum foils in cooking to be harmful to health. However, another study by Willhite et al., (2014) also found no strong evidence linking the use of aluminum foil with an increased risk of disease.
Health risks of too much aluminum
It is newsworthy to note that the daily intake of aluminum through food and cooking is regarded as safe. This is supported by one study by Krewski et al., (2007), which found that healthy people can efficiently excrete the small amounts of aluminum the body absorbs. This notwithstanding, dietary aluminum has been found as a possible factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The cause of Alzheimer’s disease in uncertain. However, it is believed to have some genetic and environmental factors undertone. High levels of aluminum have been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. A study by Soni et al., (2001) failed to establish any causation between high aluminum intake as the cause of the disease.
However, three studies – Boegman & Bates, 1984; Tomljenovic, 2011; Killin et al. 2016 – agree that there could be a link if one is exposed to very high levels of dietary aluminum, and this may contribute to the development of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Studies are yet to confirm the exact role aluminum plays in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s. Apart from its role in brain disease, few studies have found that dietary aluminum could be an environmental risk factor for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) (Lerner, 2012; Pineton et al., 2014). The only studies that allude to the fact of linkage were animal studies, but are yet to establish a definite linkage (Aamodt et al., 2008; Anderson et al., 2012) between aluminum intake and IBD.
Reducing exposure to Aluminum when cooking
Aluminum cannot be completely removed from our diet. We can however reduce the risk of exposure. In 2011, The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reached a consensus that levels below 2 mg per 2.2 pounds (1 kg) body weight per week are unlikely to cause health problems.
Also, The European Food Safety Authority employs a more conservative estimate of 1 mg per 2.2 pounds (1 kg) body weight per week. Interestingly, studies by Greger, (1992) and Cuciureanu et al., (2000) have affirmed that we consume far less than these notable organisations considered as the safe threshold.
The following recommendations can avert your risk of aluminum exposure:
- Avoid high-heat cooking: foods should be cooked at lower temperatures whenever possible.
- Use less aluminum foils:Reduce your use of aluminum foils for cooking, especially if cooking with acidic foods, like tomatoes or lemons.
- Use non-aluminum utensils: such as glass, cast iron, stainless steel, Copper or porcelain dishes and utensils. There are also ‘Green cookware’ which you can consider using.
- Avoid mixing aluminum foils and acidic foods:Liukkonen-Lilja & Piepponen, (1992) study recommends not exposing aluminum foils or cookware to acidic foods such as tomato sauce or rhubarb.
- Aluminum is ingested through food, water and medication. However, most of the aluminum you ingest is passed in fecal matter and urine, and is not considered harmful.
- Cooking with aluminum foils can increase the amount of aluminum in your food.However, the amounts are very small and deemed safe by researchers.
- High levels of dietary aluminum have been suggested as a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s disease and IBD. However, its role in these conditions remains unclear.
- Aluminum exposure can be reduced by decreasing your intake of highly processed foods and reducing your use of aluminum foil and aluminum cooking utensils.
>>>The authors: Prof. Raphael Nyarkotey Obu is the President of the Nyarkotey College of Holistic Medicine & Technology (NUCHMT) and the African Naturopathic Foundation. Lawrencia Aggrey-Bluwey is a PhD student at the University of Ghana Business School. E-mail: [email protected].