‘To Safeguard People from Chemical Pollution, Another Approach Is Warranted’

Credit: Bodo Tiedemann

As many as nine million people (16% of all deaths worldwide) die each year as a result of air, water and soil pollution. Although there is extensive evidence that exposure to specific chemicals can lead to disease, the current research approach does not provide sufficient insight to intervene. In an article in the journal Science, Utrecht professor Roel Vermeulen and his international colleagues therefore call for a systematic approach, at a scale comparable to that of the human genome.

We live in an increasingly complex world when it comes to chemicals. The number of new chemicals has increased from 20 million in 2002 to 156 million last year. Many of these are ubiquitous in the world around us because of their continuous use. Pesticides, plastics, industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals are found in nature and in our food chain. And that has consequences. These chemicals can have unwanted side effects and cause disease. The figures are startling: research shows that at least nine million people die each year as a result of air, water and soil pollution.

Getting a hold on who gets sick and who doesn’t

When the human genome was unraveled, it brought about a revolution. However, genetic predisposition does not tell everything, external factors may play a more important role. The sum of all the environmental drivers of health and diseases is called the exposome: a combination of external factors such as chemicals in the air, water or food, and of internal components produced by our body in response to these factors. “To fully realize the potential of the human genome, it is necessary to have the complementary information on the environment. The exposome can provide that information”, says study co-author Gary Miller of Columbia University.

In recent years, scientists have already made significant progress in mapping the exposome. But if we want to safeguard current and future generations from the increasing number of chemicals polluting our environment, another approach is needed, the researchers stress. Thanks to progress in the use of satellites, sensors, modelling and biomedical measurements it is now possible to map the exposome systematically. One of the innovative techniques highlighted by the researchers, is high-resolution mass spectrometry; a technique that can detect tens of thousands of substances in biological and environmental samples.

“This not only means that more chemicals can be studied, but also that previously unrecognized culprits can be found,” says Vermeulen. “We are confident that current developments have brought us to the point where we can really understand the effects of exposure to thousands of chemicals.” Vermeulen emphasizes that research into the exposome is only truly informative if it takes place on a large scale and systematically. If necessary, based on such research, chemical substances can be removed from our living environment or alternatives can be developed (green chemistry), so that people and the environment are safe.

Vermeulen leads new collaborations

Last summer Vermeulen received a prestigious grant of over seventeen million euros from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to set up a new consortium, Exposome-NL. In this Dutch consortium, a team of epidemiologists, geographers, sociologists, chemists and biomedical scientists are working together to unravel the exposome. Vermeulen and his colleagues are also making progress on a European level. On February 11, the European Commission will launch nine projects on the exposome, together worth 106 million euros. Vermeulen coordinates one of these projects and with his research group is involved in two other projects.

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