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What Is an Action Level?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is an action level in environmental terms?

An action level refers to the concentration of a contaminant which, when exceeded, triggers regulatory or remedial action. This threshold is set by environmental agencies based on research and risk assessments to protect human health and the environment. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets action levels for contaminants in drinking water to ensure safety and prompt necessary responses.

How is an action level different from a maximum contaminant level?

While both action levels and maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) are regulatory thresholds, they serve different purposes. An action level prompts a response to reduce contamination, such as additional testing or treatment, whereas an MCL is a legally enforceable standard that must not be exceeded. MCLs represent the highest level of a contaminant allowed in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Who determines the action levels for various substances?

Action levels are determined by regulatory agencies, such as the EPA in the United States, based on scientific studies, risk assessments, and public health considerations. These levels are set to manage the risk of exposure to harmful substances and are periodically reviewed and updated to reflect new scientific data and technological advancements.

What happens if an action level is exceeded?

If an action level is exceeded, it triggers a series of required actions by the responsible entity, such as a water utility or industrial facility. These actions can include further investigation, notifying the public, implementing remedial measures, and increased monitoring to ensure that the issue is addressed and future compliance is achieved.

Are action levels the same in every country?

No, action levels can vary significantly between countries as they are set by national regulatory bodies and are based on local environmental conditions, industrial practices, and public health goals. Different countries may have varying levels of resources and scientific data, which can influence the establishment of their specific action levels.

Can action levels change over time?

Yes, action levels can and do change over time. Regulatory agencies may adjust action levels in response to new scientific research, technological advancements in detection and remediation, or changes in public health standards. It's essential for these levels to be dynamic to ensure ongoing protection of the environment and public health.

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