Along with public opinion and advocacy, research is another important driver of policy decisions. Research is the an essential tool for the identification of safe alternatives for chemicals in commerce that are a health concern. Efforts by scientists in areas such as green chemistry aim to design new chemicals that have little to no negative effects on our health.
The same research tools can also be used to guide chemical regulatory policy. To encourage regulation of a specific chemical, research needs to prove it poses a threat to human health. To better understand the risk posed by chemical exposures, scientists first needed to develop methods to identify which chemicals are getting into our bodies and at what levels. One technique is bio-monitoring; which involves looking at both the environment a person lives in and samples from the person themselves.
Historically, human exposures were estimated from the concentration of a chemical in the environment, food, water, or consumer goods. But advances have enabled scientists to directly measure the concentration of a chemical or metabolites in specimen, such as blood, urine, or bone. A recent CDC study detected over 212 chemicals in the U.S. population. Even DDT was found at a detectable level in children, despite the fact that it had been banned decades before they were born.
But what does bio-monitoring data mean for public health? The problem is that bio-monitoring studies on their own do not determine the relationship between chemical exposures and health effects. Bio-monitoring is the first step, but can only determine what enters our bodies. In order for regulatory action to be taken, these chemical exposures must be linked to specific effects, as was done for children's lead exposure and mental deficits. Unfortunately, for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) many links remain unknown.
To better determine links between environmental exposures and health effects, a multi-agency collaboration is conducting a national research effort called the National Children’s Study . The study will track 100,000 children from before birth to the age of 21 collecting data on their chemical exposures and potentially related health effects. Then, researchers will analyze the data to learn how environment influences health, including evidence identifying which chemicals in our bodies are making us sick.
The study is focusing on children because research has documented their unique vulnerability to chemicals, and how exposures during development can set us up for chronic health problems and the development of diseases later in life.
Because of the sheer size and length, the National Children’s Study will be expensive. To get the full benefit, it is critical that funding is maintained. This study is about prevention, we need to try to stop environmentally related health effects before they start. Investment in environmental health research is important because of the clear potential to save both lives and treatment costs.
This is Part 9 in the Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action