While interviewing a cancer researcher a few years ago, she made a comment to me almost in passing that was so powerful it has stuck with me. She said, “all cancers are the result of a combination of environmental and genetic factors.”
Throughout our lives we are exposed to an enormous range of man-made chemicals, from food, water, medicines, cosmetics, clothes, shoes and the air we breathe. So when I learned about a new European study, State of the Art Report on Mixture Toxicity, it caught my attention. At the request of the European Union, researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, looked at the "chemical cocktail" exposure risk that may have adverse effect on human health.
What they found is scary and prolific. To map out the current situation, Swedish reseachers collaborated with University of London researchers to carry out a review using state-of-the-art toxicology and ecotoxicology techniques. The study showed the combined cocktail effect of environmental chemicals is greater and far more toxic than the effect of the chemicals individually, even if each substance alone is below its own risk limit.
The research focused particularly on endocrine disrupters. These are substances that act like hormones and disturb the normal functioning of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is a network of glands and hormones that regulate many of the body's functions, including growth, development and maturation.
Endocrine disrupter chemicals like PVC, flame-retardants, phthalates, dioxins, PCBs and bisphenol-A are suspected of interfering with the production and performance of hormones. Such effects have already been seen in animals by impairing reproduction, development or immunity.
A number of studies show that multiple endocrine disrupters can be linked to harmful effects on human health too. Exposure may be through everyday items—food, plastics, paints and cosmetics, among others. These chemicals are thought to be responsible for declining sperm counts and quality, genital malformations, retarded sexual development and increased incidences of certain types of cancer.
So how prolific are these chemicals?