Background Chemical exposures have been associated with a variety of health effects; however, little is known about the global disease burden from foodborne chemicals. Food can be a major pathway for the general population's exposure to chemicals, and for some chemicals, it accounts for almost 100% of exposure. Methods and Findings Groups of foodborne chemicals, both natural and anthropogenic, were evaluated for their ability to contribute to the burden of disease. The results of the analyses on four chemicals are presented here - cyanide in cassava, peanut allergen, aflatoxin, and dioxin. Systematic reviews of the literature were conducted to develop age- and sex-specific disease incidence and mortality estimates due to these chemicals. From these estimates, the numbers of cases, deaths and disability adjusted life years (DALYs) were calculated. For these four chemicals combined, the total number of illnesses, deaths, and DALYs in 2010 is estimated to be 339,000 (95% uncertainty interval [UI]: 186,000-1,239,000); 20,000 (95% UI: 8,000-52,000); and 1,012,000 (95% UI: 562,000-2,822,000), respectively. Both cyanide in cassava and aflatoxin are associated with diseases with high case-fatality ratios. Virtually all human exposure to these four chemicals is through the food supply. Conclusion Chemicals in the food supply, as evidenced by the results for only four chemicals, can have a significant impact on the global burden of disease. The case-fatality rates for these four chemicals range from low (e.g., peanut allergen) to extremely high (aflatoxin and liver cancer). The effects associated with these four chemicals are neurologic (cyanide in cassava), cancer (aflatoxin), allergic response (peanut allergen), endocrine (dioxin), and reproductive (dioxin).
Keywords: DALYs; aflatoxin; cassava; cyanide; dioxin; epidemiology; foodborne diseases; peanut allergen; public health.