Researchers from Brno’s Masaryk University are engaged in an extensive study mapping the effects of toxic substances in the environment on the health of the population. An EU grant for a modern biobank will enable them to take further a pan-European project that Brno scientists joined in 1991. The aim is to study the impact of the environment from embryo stage through life, on three generations of people. Jana Klánová, head of the Brno-based Research Centre for Toxic Compounds in the Environment, explains what kind of research this involves.
“One of the interesting results that we are looking into now is exposure to chemicals in the household. Because it seems that if we overuse certain chemicals for cleaning the house it can cause allergies in children. Another area we are looking into is the use of drugs/medicines during pregnancy. We are looking into paracetamol taken during pregnancy for example and trying to find links to the health of new-born babies and small children. Very interesting also are dietary patterns because if we compare the development of dietary patters we can see that the 90s generation ate completely differently from the way we eat today. Also, we combine these results with our environmental data. When talking about hard data we have much more data about the environment because we have been doing this research for the last 30 years. We have a lot of data on exposure to chemicals from the outdoor environment, but we also do a lot of research on indoor environment so we have a lot of interesting data indicating to what chemicals we are exposed indoors. We all spend 90 percent of our time indoors where we are exposed to flame retardants, various kinds of perfluorinated compounds used to coat fabrics for easier cleaning and many others.”
Do you study the use of cosmetics as well?
“A Scandinavian study tried to assess the major source of endocrine disruptors for pregnant women and children and they found that it was actually cosmetics.”
“That’s something we are looking at right now. Most of the environmental institutes focussed on the outdoor environment, predominantly the quality of air, but nowadays it has been recognized that we have to look at other types of chemical exposure which is indoors and that includes cosmetics. There was a study performed in the Scandinavian countries focussing on lifestyle and the use of cosmetics, conducted on a group of pregnant women and their children, which tried to assess the major source of endocrine disruptors for the women and children and they found that it was actually the cosmetics, not the air or something else that was the major cause. So we figure that cosmetics and consumer products are a very important source. We already did some research on consumer products and the chemicals found in building materials, carpeting, furniture, computers and these kind of things. Because as I said, you spend 90 percent of your time in your home and when you think about chemical exposure on the human population there are basically three exposure pathways: one is through respiration, so you have to look at the quality of outdoor air and indoor air, but also the dust that we breathe, the second is dietary, meaning what we eat and it is important to look into the contents of food and especially fatty food that can contain a lot of chemicals (for small children dietary exposure can include household dust because they spend a lot of time on the floor putting things into their mouth) and the third exposure pathway is dermal, some of the cosmetics we use penetrate into the body.”
Do you feel that this danger –household toxins – has been underestimated?
“It looks like it. You cannot really measure everything, so we rely a lot on mathematical modelling. There are chemists or environmental chemists who developed mathematical models that predict the accumulation of chemicals in the human body. They take data on the contamination of indoor air, outdoor air, dust, food, cosmetics, and they try to predict which compounds will accumulate in which body parts. If we have samples – say blood and urine – in the blood sample we can measure chemicals that do not dissolve in water and accumulate in fat, while in urine we measure chemicals that are water soluble or metabolized –which gives us pretty good information about body liquids. But if we want to link this information to information on human health we are more interested in the concentration of toxins in organs –in the brain, in the kidneys, in the liver, because we are interested in the damage those chemicals can cause to the organs. And of course we cannot have samples of the organs, so the only thing we can do is pharmacokinetic modelling where modellers work with what was measured in the urine and they try to calculate what is in the brain or lungs or liver. This data is combined with eco-toxicological data tested on different models or laboratory organisms that will tell us how harmful the chemical is.”
And in this study do you compare people living in big cities and those living in a clean environment who live a simple life and do not encounter so many household toxins?
“We are using much more chemicals and we do not really have enough information about them.”
“The question is what you can call a clean environment. We have studies comparing outdoor environment and sometimes you would be surprised because the big cities sometimes have a lower concentration of certain chemicals in the air than the rural areas. That is due to heating, in small villages most people burn fossil fuels, as well as all kinds of junk and waste. So during the winter the quality of the air in small villages can be much worse than in the big cities that rely more on central heating. As regards indoor environment, we did a study in Brno and the vicinity where we focussed on different kinds of buildings, because we suspected that the building materials would have a big impact on the quality of the environment and we found there was a huge difference in buildings built in the 1920s, 1950s and 1990s. It was a big study on family and apartment houses built in the last century, taking into account whether they had been reconstructed and remodelled later with new building materials and isolation materials and we could see pretty big differences. And we also noticed that indoor contamination is much more dependent on what kind of consumer products you bring into the house. So you were right that there is a difference between the people who have a lot of electronics, a lot of carpeting, a lot of new materials in the house and those who have an old-fashioned, very simple household.”
So the situation is getting worse rather than better?
“It is different. For example, as regards air quality that is definitely improving. It has improved a lot in the last twenty years with the decline of the industry and government policies. So the quality of the air is better, but we are using much more chemicals and we do not really have enough information about them.”
Would you say that people are more conscious now of the danger of these toxins around us?
“Yes, definitely. People are more careful and there is a European policy that is trying to prevent industries from using chemicals that have an impact on our health or a toxic effect. But still the amount of chemicals that we use gets bigger and bigger. I think people are more aware of this, they are more interested in what is in their food, what is in their cosmetics, you can see a lot of bio-cosmetics on the market claiming to be free of phthalates and parabens …and I think it is important. And this awareness is also something we rely on. In our population studies we completely rely on people’s goodwill, on their willingness to come and collaborate with us, to provide us with samples, to fill the questionnaires. There are a lot of studies based on patients, clinical studies in the hospitals but then we are only studying people who are already sick and we can only guess why they got sick, why they developed that particular disease. But in order to identify what has the biggest impact we need to work with the healthy population –that is the only way how this research can be done.”