BfR wishes to offer consumers better protection against allergenic substances
Around the world allergies are one of the biggest health problems. They impair the quality of life of a large part of the population and have a major impact on the economy. Four percent of infants alone in central Europe suffer from a food allergy. Around 12 percent of 13-14 year olds and considerably more adults have hay fever. Contact eczema is another frequent problem. The symptoms of an "excessive" immunological defence reaction of the body can manifest in the respiratory tract, skin or digestive organs. The number of allergic disorders is on the increase and varies from region to region in Germany. Allergy experts from the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), the Berlin Charité hospital and the University Clinic Heidelberg drew attention to this situation at an information meeting for media representatives in Berlin. "There are plans to draw together all the available information about the development of allergies and to formulate concrete action options" said BfR President, Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, in his opening address.
Before the summer break Federal Consumer Protection Minister Horst Seehofer announced the launch of a National Action Plan to Combat Allergies. Against this backdrop the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment invited media representatives to an information meeting on allergies. The two experts from the clinical area, Professor Dr. Ulrich Wahn and Professor Dr. Thomas Diepgen, explicitly welcomed this initiative. The time was more than ripe for a concerted action programme to tackle this national disease.
In Germany the number of people suffering from allergic bronchial asthma doubled during the 1980s. In Denmark the number of neurodermatitis cases has almost increased threefold from birth cohorts 1960-64 to birth cohorts 1970-74. Data for central Europe show that 30 percent of infant neurodermatitis sufferers also have a food allergy. 6 to 19% of children suffer from atopic eczema and 15 to 20 % of adults are sensitised to allergenic substances.
Many questions about what triggers allergies and the related immunological processes have still to be answered. Avoidance strategies are, therefore, particularly important. In this respect it is advantageous to recognise the allergy-triggering potential of critical substances early on. Substances intended for use in consumer products should be tested for their allergenic properties beforehand. Although reliable test methods are already available for contact allergy effects, there are no such tests for detecting the allergenic properties of substances which lead to a sensitisation of the respiratory tract. The same applies to the allergy-triggering properties of foods which impact on the gastro-intestinal tract.
Protection of consumers from contact with substances to which they are allergic and also from other substances which may be involved in allergy development could be improved by providing information about problematic constituents in products, textiles and foods. This would give the consumers affected the possibility of consciously choosing or avoiding products and foods in line with their individual allergy situation. Allergy sufferers could thus actively protect themselves from allergenic substances.
In addition to avoiding contact with allergenic substances, allergies can also be prevented. For instance, breastfeeding has a favourable, preventive impact on certain types of allergy. Improved non-smoker protection would also have a positive effect on the allergy rate: there have been no scientific doubts about the influence of passive smoking on the onset of allergic disorders of the respiratory tract in children for a long time.
BfR plans to invite medical associations, universities and other circles concerned to expert meetings in order to examine this subject in greater depth. Furthermore, the Institute is to develop tools for targeted risk communication with a view to offering consumers maximum information and optimum protection.