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Fipronil, a common insecticide with limited toxicity

Ⓒ dpa/AFP – Marcel Kusch – | Fripronil contamination tests, carried out on eggs in a laboratory in Krefeld, Germany, on 7 August 2017

Fipronil, a pesticide already criticized for its toxicity on bees, is at the heart of the contamination scandal of millions of chicken eggs. How does this product work? In which cases can it be used? Are there risks to human health?

Home use, restricted use in agriculture

This insecticide acts by disrupting the transmission of nerve impulses in nerve cells. The affected insects die of hyper-excitement.

Developed by Rhône Poulenc in the late 1980s, it has been marketed since 1993 and is now owned by the German chemical giant BASF.

Fipronil is present in many pest control products for pets (sprays, pipettes and flea collars and anti-ticks for dogs and cats) and in products for domestic use against infestations (anti-termites, anti-ants , Anti-cockroaches …)

In agriculture, fipronil is used, mainly under the Regent brand, against insect pests of maize, sunflower or potato crops, especially via seed coating.

However, this practice is prohibited in France since 2004, as is the case in most European countries, although it is accused of provoking an excess of bees. It remains authorized for this purpose in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as in many other countries in the world, including the United States.

However, its use is prohibited in the European Union for breeding intended for human consumption, such as hens and their eggs.

Limited human toxicity

WHO classifies fipronil as a “moderately hazardous” pesticide for humans, based on animal testing.

It does not have a proven carcinogenic effect, but can cause neurological disorders and vomiting, especially in cases of deliberate ingestion (attempted suicide).

Apart from these cases, “effects observed only occur with repeated exposure (…) and the effects are generally reversible. Accidental exposure to a very low dose should not be harmful “Said Alan Boobis, a professor of toxicology at Imperial College in London, questioned by AFP.

Fipronil “seems to be eliminated rather quickly” by the body, “it is unlikely to accumulate significantly over time,” added Prof. Boobis.

In a report published in 2005, French health agencies, AFSSA and AFSSE (since the ANSES) already considered that there was not at the time “any indication that exposure to fipronil was a risk to The health of humans under the recommended conditions of use “.

However, they recommended “further work” on possible long-term “effects” on the level of thyroid hormones, especially for those exposed to work.

No risk of poisoning

In the case of the current crisis, the risk of poisoning is very low or even zero, given the concentrations found in contaminated eggs (less than 1.2 mg / kg).

“Removing eggs from the market is more important to reassure people about the safety of their food than to protect their health,” according to Prof. Boobis.

The European Union considers that there is no risk to the consumer if he ingests less than 0.009 mg / kg during a meal or a day. For a person weighing 60 kg, this represents 0.54 mg, or about eight of the eggs with the highest concentration of fipronil.

However, the German health agency BfR warned that the highest concentrations found could lead to exceeding the recommended thresholds for children. But even in this case, “a short-term overtaking does not automatically mean that the consumption of the food in question involves a risk to health,” she reassured.

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