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March 19, 2000

The Perils Of Premature Panic

Full Speed Astern on the Nitrates Scare

A stock Environmentalist/Health-Fad terror going back to the 1980s is of nitrates in food and drinking water causing stomach cancer, turning babies blue, and whatever. Oxygen-hungry microbes in our mouths, so the argument went, could change nitrate (NO3-) to nitrite (NO2-), which might then react in the stomach with secondary amines released by digestion to produce carcinogenic N-nitrosamines. Although the idea was based on perceived possibility rather than hard evidence, and as far as I'm aware attempts to establish such a link have drawn a blank, it has remained a canon of the faith to this day.

Now, Tom Addiscott, a British research scientist and visiting professor at the University of East London, shows in the February 5, 2000 issue of New Scientist, "Making a Meal of it," p.48, that the scare not only looks like being misfounded but could have contributed to the rise in food poisoning in Britain from 35,000 notifications in 1987 to 106,000 in 1997. Nitrates, it seems, could actually be good for you, despite the finding that the feared conversion to nitrite does take place. In fact, one of the body's metabolic systems secretes nitrates into the saliva if you're not getting enough from water and vegetables—which is hardly what you'd expect if nitrite causes stomach cancer. What happens is that strong stomach acids decompose the nitrite straight away, and in doing so generate nitric oxide and other substances that help kill off Salmonella, E. coli, and other unwelcome stomach guests. The mechanism is part of the body's defenses against the microbes that cause gastroenteritis, which kills up to 5 million people per year, and ironically seems to be the main factor involved in the "blue baby syndrome," MHB (methaemoglobinaemia for those who just have to know), for which nitrates have also been blamed.

 
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