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New Test Finds Formaldehyde On Import Fish

Raleigh, N.C. — A group of researchers and entrepreneurs in the North Carolina Research Triangle area has developed an inexpensive instant test for formaldehyde on food and, in the process, found that about one-quarter of the fish they bought at chain grocery stores contained unacceptable levels of the suspected carcinogen.

A. James Attar and his co-workers said formaldehyde was found only on some of the fish imported from China and South Vietnam. It was not found on fish produced in the United States, South America or India.

Attar said the findings indicate that the U.S. needs to better inspect its food supply, in particular imported perishable goods.

“I think this is a national issue,” said Attar, a former professor of chemical engineering at N.C. State University. “I think we have some responsibility to protect people’s health.”

Attar announced the findings last week at N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, where he, Jason Morton and Matthew Swartz developed the formaldehyde test for ChemSee, a branch of their company, Appealing Products Inc. They say the company is focused on the development of novel and relatively inexpensive products that simplify complex scientific procedures.

The team had researchers in the university’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences conduct independent tests to verify their methods. Jonathan C. Allen, professor and director of graduate programs in the department, said the tests checked out.

In addition to the formaldehyde process, the company has developed tests for gunshot residue, toxic gases, trace explosives and other materials, Attar said.

The formaldehyde test was developed for consumer advocacy groups in Bangladesh, Attar said, where formaldehyde is sometimes added to foods to prevent the growth of bacteria in the absence of proper refrigeration.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said this summer that about 15 percent of the food Americans eat comes from abroad, but only 1 percent to 2 percent of imported foods are inspected. The FDA has been grappling with new rules to enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January 2011, but has focused largely on preventing the spread of food-borne illnesses caused by pathogens such as bacteria. The FDA has about 1,600 investigators to oversee the import of food, drugs and medical devices and other goods.

Attar said one of the major challenges in inspecting imported foods, especially perishables, is the time it takes to get results from traditional testing methods. Importers can’t afford to have food sitting for a couple of days while inspectors wait to find out if it tests negative for contaminants.

The test Attar, Morton and Swartz developed is a quick, cheap alternative, they said: a swab about a half-inch square that can be rubbed over a sample of fish, for instance, and will indicate the presence of formaldehyde by turning pink or purple in two to three minutes.

So far, the company has sold and shipped 100,000 of the swabs to Bangladesh, and Attar and his coworkers say they expect orders from China and South Korea. The one-time swabs will cost about $1 each, Attar said.

While developing the swabs, the researchers bought randomly selected fish from chain grocery stores around Raleigh, N.C. They tested the fish first to establish control levels of formaldehyde, so they could see how the swabs performed once formaldehyde was added. But some of the fish tested positive right away, before the chemical was added. The team bought additional samples and did more tests, with similar results, over a period of months, they said.

NOAA Fisheries, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that in 2011, the U.S. imported about 91 percent of the seafood it consumed. That year, Americans ate 15 pounds of fish and shellfish each, NOAA Fisheries says, a total of nearly 5 billion pounds, making the U.S. second only to China in seafood consumption.

Attar said the public must pressure the FDA to increase its inspections of imported perishable goods such as fish. “I think it’s ridiculous that perishable food is not inspected,” he said. “It must be inspected if we’re going to protect the public.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen, associated with nasopharyngeal cancer, leukemia and other cancers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it is a probable carcinogen. Some studies indicate it may be linked to birth defects in babies whose mothers had high exposures.

Made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound created naturally by people, plants and animals during normal metabolic processes. It’s also a by-product of combustion, emitted by cars and trucks, and is produced by burning wood and cigarettes.

Industrially, it’s most often used to make resins, especially for wood particleboard, which is then used in furniture, cabinetry, flooring and other building products. It is also used in the funeral industry as an ingredient in embalming fluid.

OSHA regulates formaldehyde as a carcinogen, and has adopted a permissible exposure level of .75 parts per million. The Environmental Protection Agency advises mitigating formaldehyde levels higher than .1 part per million.