Chemicals prevalent in the food supply can have a significant impact on the global burden of disease, a WHO Task Force shows with new research published in F1000Research.

In a translational research article, which will be peer-reviewed after publication in F1000Research, the FERG Task Force on Chemicals in Food (which involved leading researchers from 18 research affiliations in 8 different countries) calculated illnesses, deaths and 'disability adjusted life years' (DALYs) for four chemicals: dioxin, aflatoxin, peanut allergen and cyanide in cassava (a major staple food in the developing world). These chemicals are known to have reproductive/endocrine, cancerous, allergic and neurological effects, respectively, and were identified by the Task Force as priority compounds. Priority rankings were based on the severity of potential health effects, the size of the population vulnerable to exposure, and the current availability of data.

In 2010, the four selected chemicals were estimated to be collectively associated with 339,000 illnesses, 20,000 deaths, and 1,012,000 DALYs (which are used as the most common single metric for quantifying death and disability). Aflatoxin was associated with the highest global DALYs (636,869), whereas dioxin was associated with the greatest number of illnesses (193,447, albeit 0 deaths).

The Southeast Asian, Western Pacific, and African regions showed the highest burdens of disease, with aflatoxin making the largest contribution in the latter two regions, while dioxin is the largest contributor in Southeast Asia. The findings also show that cyanide in cassava and aflatoxin are associated with diseases which have high case-fatality rates.

Herman Gibb, chair of the FERG Task Force on Chemicals in Food and lead author of the F1000Research paper, said: "The burden of disease associated with foodborne chemicals is a critical public health issue and assessment of this issue is urgently needed.

"The research presented here has important global health implications, and it is therefore important that the results be communicated quickly. The F1000Research publishing model gave us that opportunity. Furthermore, we are delighted by the transparency of the peer review process which will benefit both the readers and the authors."

The F1000Research paper is published alongside a broader analysis of the global burden of foodborne bacteria, viruses, parasites, and chemicals from the WHO. The larger report shows almost 1 in 10 people fall ill every year from eating contaminated food, resulting in 420, 000 deaths.