What Is an Action Level?

Marlene Garcia

An action level refers to the minimum level of contaminants permitted by government regulatory agencies in food, water, drugs, and animal feed. Government officials set an action level for specific toxins in products consumed by humans and animals. Violation of an action level could result in legal action by the agency overseeing the health and safety of these products, including removal of the product from distribution. An action level is based on the unavoidable contamination of products and does not represent permission to allow harmful substances. These agencies consider it unlawful to purposely allow toxins at any level.

Government officials set action levels for the minimum level of contaminants in public drinking water.
Government officials set action levels for the minimum level of contaminants in public drinking water.

Tolerance levels for pesticides, herbicides, and harmful metals in food and animal feed cover a wide range of poisons and allowable amounts in specific items. For example, the cadmium level for pottery used in cooking and as serving dishes is regulated, with one action level for cups and another for serving bowls. Likewise, the acceptable level of contaminants might differ for different kinds of nuts, and the pesticide level in frog legs only applies to the edible part. Importers of brandy are limited to action levels of 35 percent methyl alcohol.

Tolerance levels for pesticide cover a wide range.
Tolerance levels for pesticide cover a wide range.

An action level applies to each potential harmful substance in public drinking water that might cause health problems. A different action level is set for each organic and inorganic chemical, for a disinfectant and its byproducts, for microorganisms, and for radionuclide exposure. Alongside each action level, regulatory agencies list the possible adverse health effect of each contaminant.

Bacteria in water from animal or human feces cause gastrointestinal illness, while other toxins might cause more serious health risks. Disinfectants used to treat potable water are linked to increased risk of cancer, liver, kidney, and central nervous system disorders, and anemia in children. Microorganisms might get into the water supply from drainage run-off, causing eye and nose irritation.

Inorganic chemicals from petroleum and other manufacturing plants can also taint drinking water. Certain chemicals are known contributors to high cholesterol and blood pressure. Other substances might lead to skin and circulatory problems and higher cancer risk. Cyanide discharged by metal manufactures increases the risk of nerve damage and developmental delays in children.

The government sets action levels based on scientific knowledge about toxins. It periodically updates tolerance levels as new information becomes available. Food, drug, and animal feed manufacturers assume responsibility for staying up-to-date with revised action levels for the products they produce. By setting action levels, a regulatory agency hopes to protect consumers and the environment. Action levels in the workplace help protect employees from harm.

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