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Keywords:

  • alcoholic beverages;
  • risk assessment;
  • dose–response relationship;
  • margin of exposure;
  • epidemiology

Abstract

Alcoholic beverages have been classified as carcinogenic to humans. As alcoholic beverages are multicomponent mixtures containing several carcinogenic compounds, a quantitative approach is necessary to compare the risks. Fifteen known and suspected human carcinogens (acetaldehyde, acrylamide, aflatoxins, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, ethanol, ethyl carbamate, formaldehyde, furan, lead, 4-methylimidazole, N-nitrosodimethylamine, ochratoxin A and safrole) occurring in alcoholic beverages were identified based on monograph reviews by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The margin of exposure (MOE) approach was used for comparative risk assessment. MOE compares a toxicological threshold with the exposure. MOEs above 10,000 are judged as low priority for risk management action. MOEs were calculated for different drinking scenarios (low risk and heavy drinking) and different levels of contamination for four beverage groups (beer, wine, spirits and unrecorded alcohol). The lowest MOEs were found for ethanol (3.1 for low risk and 0.8 for heavy drinking). Inorganic lead and arsenic have average MOEs between 10 and 300, followed by acetaldehyde, cadmium and ethyl carbamate between 1,000 and 10,000. All other compounds had average MOEs above 10,000 independent of beverage type. Ethanol was identified as the most important carcinogen in alcoholic beverages, with clear dose response. Some other compounds (lead, arsenic, ethyl carbamate, acetaldehyde) may pose risks below thresholds normally tolerated for food contaminants, but from a cost-effectiveness point of view, the focus should be on reducing alcohol consumption in general rather than on mitigative measures for some contaminants that contribute only to a limited extent (if at all) to the total health risk.