Researchers have now worked out how stomach bacteria increase risk of gastric cancer.
The discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in the 1980s has led to the relief of painful stomach symptoms for thousands of people. Where before ulcers or gastritis were thought to be the result of diet or stress, researchers realised that many patients were suffering as a result of the bacteria – easily killed with a strong dose of antibiotics. Now researchers have found out how the bacteria increase a person’s risk of gastric cancer too.
While it’s been known for some time that H pylori increases risk of gastric cancer, no one could pinpoint how this happened. Now researchers from the Institute of Molecular Cancer Research at the University of Zurich have shown how H pylori causes breaks in DNA strands. If the bacterium is killed off within a few hours of infection with antibiotics, the body’s cells are triggered to repair themselves and any damage can be reversed.
If, however, the bacterium remains in the body, the cell’s repair mechanisms become less effective, so that DNA strands cannot be repaired or are repaired ineffectively, causing cell death or genetic mutations. The researchers say that the degree of damage depends on the duration of the infection, which is why it is important to get treatment if you suspect you may have the bacterial infection.
Gastric cancer is one of the more deadly types of cancer largely because it is often undiagnosed until it reaches the late stages of development. Symptoms include indigestion, acidity, burping, a feeling of fullness, severe pain, feeling sick and difficulty in swallowing. The symptoms of an H pylori infection are similar in some respects: sufferers may also experience indigestion, acidity and burping, as well as pain in the abdominal area and bloating. A simple blood test can confirm whether the bacterium is present in your stomach and you can be given a course of antibiotics which will remove the bacteria from your system.
Breakfast cereals, pasta, rice and other foods packed in cardboard boxes could be contaminated with toxic chemicals, it is claimed.
The chemicals, known as mineral oil hydrocarbons, appear to be leaching from the recycled paper used to make most cardboard boxes.
Research in Germany and Switzerland found the levels to be between 10 and 100 times the agreed safe limit in products sold in supermarkets.
The mineral oils are said to cause of inflammation of internal organs and, potentially, cancer if consumed in high amounts over many years.
The British breakfast cereals manufacturer, Jordans, has switched away from using boxes made with cardboard created from recycled paper.
Other manufacturers, including Kellogg’s and Weetabix, are investigating making changes to their packaging in order to stop the chemicals reaching the food.
Last year, Kellogg’s removed 28 million children’s cereal boxes from shelves in the USA after another related chemical was found to have leached out of the packaging. Some consumers complained of a foul smell and nausea .
Britain’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is currently testing for the presence of mineral oils in food packaging. However, surprisingly, it is not testing the products themselves.
The testing in Switzerland was led by Dr Koni Grob and a government-run laboratory in Zurich and involved 119 products. Only those with thicker and more expensive inner lining bags appeared to escape contamination.
‘Roughly 30 products from 119 were free of mineral oils, nearly all because of an inner barrier,’ Dr Grob told the BBC.
‘For the others, they all exceeded the limits and most exceeded it by 10 times.
‘We calculated that before the end of their shelf life, they would probably exceed the limit 50 times on average and many would exceed it by several hundred times.’
Dr Grob stressed there was no immediate threat to health, however he said the industry should look for alternative packaging ideas. He rejected simply switching to using virgin trees.
‘The easy idea to change over to fresh fibres is not a viable solution because it would cost too many trees. We need better solutions such as introducing special barriers,’ he said.
Jordans said its decision to drop cardboard made with recycled materials such as newspapers was taken some time ago. Ink from the newspapers may be reason for the presence of the contaminants.
It said: ‘The latest research emerging from Switzerland on the content of recycled board is relatively new and Jordans did not change to use accredited board specifically in response to this issue.
‘However, we will be discussing improved supply of recycled board that avoids content from newspapers with the industry and our suppliers.’
Weetabix said it is also looking at recycled packaging that does not contain recycled newspaper.
‘Our data… does indicate that none of our products pose a risk to consumer health,’ it said.
Kellogg’s is looking at changing the inner sleeve used in packs.
A spokesman said: ‘While experts tell us there’s no immediate health concern, we are looking at our packaging.
‘We are working with our suppliers on new packaging which allows us to meet our environmental commitments but will also contain significantly lower levels of mineral oil. We are also looking at alternative inner liners for our packets.
‘Whilst there are strict regulations when it comes to the packaging of food, there is currently no direction from the UK Government about mineral oils.
‘We will immediately follow any such guidance once it has been given.’
Britain’s FSA said it was ‘not aware’ of any firm evidence to suggest that there are food safety risks related to mineral oils in food packaging.
It described the Swiss findings as ‘interesting’ but said the results ‘have not demonstrated that mineral oils in food packaging represent a food safety risk’.
Director of food safety and science at the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), Barbara Gallani, said: ‘We understand that the information currently available is limited and we are working with the FSA, food manufacturers, retailers and the packaging supply chain to gather more information.
‘The FSA has indicated that there is not a need for immediate action.’