Food safety

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

Last reviewed/updated
14 November 2011

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemicals of global concern due to their potential for long-range transport, persistence in the environment, ability to bio-magnify and bio-accumulate in ecosystems, as well as their significant negative effects on human health and the environment. Humans are exposed to these chemicals in a variety of ways: mainly through the food we eat, but also through the air we breathe, in the outdoors, indoors and at the workplace. Many products used in our daily lives may contain POPs, which have been added to improve product characteristics, such as as flame retardants or surfactants. As a result, POPs can be found virtually everywhere on our planet in measurable concentrations.

The most commonly encountered POPs are organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, industrial chemicals, most notably polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), as well as unintentional by-products of many industrial processes, especially polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDD) and dibenzofurans (PCDF), commonly known as 'dioxins'.

POPs bio-magnify throughout the food chain and bio-accumulate in organisms. The highest concentrations of POPs are thus found in organisms at the top of the food chain. Consequently, background levels of POPs can be found in the human body.

Human exposure - for some compounds and scenarios, even to low levels of POPs - can lead, among others, to increased cancer risk, reproductive disorders, alteration of the immune system, neurobehavioural impairment, endocrine disruption, genotoxicity and increased birth defects.

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