Written by By Angela Holmes, CNN
When our bodies are exposed to chemicals over time, our lives change. But what happens when that same chemical takes on a more sinister meaning?
In 2017, researchers found that components of household products, including paint stripper, bleach and household products containing perfluorinated compounds (FCs), were associated with cardiovascular, respiratory and kidney diseases.
The chemicals are one of the most commonly used chemicals on the planet, and in light of that data — and the legacy of toxic exposures — CNN spoke to researchers, policymakers and industry leaders about how the science is progressing.
“The amount of activity going on around the world in trying to be more thoughtful about what is a good, safe, eco-friendly chemical,” said Dr. Sean Drummond, who heads the Environmental Epidemiology Unit at London’s Royal Free Hospital and is lead author of the 2016 report.
“The challenge is that we’re seeing strong emerging evidence suggesting that chemicals like these can have an adverse effect on people,” Drummond added.
“This is new science and certainly developing evidence, and new things keep popping up.”
Research into the link between chemicals and disease is still relatively new.
“It is an emerging field of study and one where information is sparse, for lack of a better phrase,” Drummond said. “So it’s easier to say that we’re learning about these chemicals than to say more.”
There have been a slew of recent advances, including initiatives to warn consumers about potential hazards and establish safe practices to minimize exposures, such as bathing or brushing teeth before taking a shower or using hand washes that contain cleaning agents.
“My own personal hope would be that in the very near future, we would see some more information from the FDA about what chemicals they regulate for health and safety reasons and what they don’t, and how they distinguish those between those safety levels,” said Dr. John Boothroyd, head of Center for the Study of Toxicology at London’s Imperial College.
The most dangerous part of a chemical is always the most predictable part, said Dr. Stephen Hubbard, from the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“In terms of understanding a chemical, there are variables involved … that no one can predict — for example, during manufacturing, is there a mixture of other things that could be occurring or have different conditions,” Hubbard added.
“We know, for example, that people exposed to certain carcinogens experience increased rates of cancers that they may have not expected to,” he said. “Those are the type of influences that we are interested in addressing.”
Dr. Keehan Robinson, principal investigator of the National Toxicology Program and a toxicologist at the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said she and other scientists have led studies to monitor the effect of specific chemicals on people’s health.
“So if we put people in a house we can make sure that we’re collecting data about individual exposures to a particular agent, to various endocrine-disrupting chemicals. And we are doing this with quite a big team of researchers, including those in universities. We collect that information … and then we can … identify exposure by people, by sites and by countries,” Robinson said.
“I want to start looking at these endocrine-disrupting chemicals in ways that are more focused on the types of toxins and health impacts we have to prioritize.
“I’m exploring new ways of approaching these endocrine-disrupting chemicals … that are more focused on the types of toxic impacts we have to be aware of and to prevent.”
What’s next for chemicals in everyday life?
What worries Drummond about these compounds is that “they’re used very, very widely … and many of these people may not be aware of their exposure to these chemicals.
“I would urge policy makers to be aware of what is the potential impact on human health — because the short-term damage may seem not as profound, but over time, all of these chemicals can have a profound effect on human health.”
Dr. John Ball, a cancer researcher at the University of London, also noted that “it’s only since this 2006-2007 period that research has really gotten going. And it really came out of these investigations into chemicals and their health effects.”