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New commentary ‘Low-level chemical toxicity: no safe level? ‘ challenges current regulatory system and sets out public health implications

A commentary published today in PLOS Biology, entitled ‘Low-level chemical toxicity: no safe level?’, draws on over 30 years of peer-reviewed research to show that the risk of developing a disease or of death is proportionately greater at the lowest dose or lowest levels of exposure for some of the most widely used and well-studied chemicals like radon, lead, fine airborne particles, asbestos, tobacco, and benzene.

Dr Bruce Lanphear, MD, an expert on lead toxicity and environmental health, urges to drastically reduce widespread exposures to toxic chemicals because of their association with cardiovascular disease, preterm birth, leukemia, lessened learning ability, and malignant mesothelioma, among others.

The practical implications of Dr Lanphear’s findings are that achieving ‘near-zero exposure’ to these chemicals is necessary to protect public health, requiring a shift away from the current approach of setting so-called safe levels of exposure. “The policy implications of these studies are staggering. In theory, they indicate that regulatory agencies should strive to achieve near-zero exposures for radon, lead, airborne particles, asbestos, and benzene to protect people’s health, ” Dr Lanphear writes.

From HEAL’s perspective, this new scientific contribution on the health effects of chemicals’ exposure at low levels is particularly relevant in the European regulatory context and agencies such as ECHA and EFSA. Over the last months, the safety of particular groups of chemicals such as endocrine disruptors, pesticides or flame retardants has fuelled intense policy debates and led to questions about whether the current risk assessment processes are protecting health enough.

This study further adds arguments in favour of a shift in approach in chemical management. First, long-term health and societal consequences of chronic, low-dose exposure have to be taken into account if widely spread chemicals do not have safe levels and are proportionately more toxic at the lowest levels of exposure. Second, expanding prevention strategies to not only focus on the groups of population highly exposed to certain substances, but also those exposed at low to moderate levels.

“Perhaps the greatest meaning of this new study is that we can’t get away from the adverse health effects of toxic chemicals by simply reducing our exposure – we need to reach near-zero exposure for the entire population. This study shows that the chronic, low-dose exposure to these chemicals is causing preventable diseases and deaths and that we need a paradigm change in the way the EU and national regulatory agencies regulate chemicals. That presents an imperative for decisive action as well as a huge opportunity to improve public health.” said Natacha Cingotti, HEAL Health and Chemicals Policy Officer.

Dr. Lanphear concludes his commentary by setting out the implications for regulatory agencies. “The steep increase in risk at the lowest levels followed by the flattening or attenuation at higher doses or levels of dose or exposure for carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic toxicants will challenge regulatory agencies to promulgate substantially larger reductions in exposures to toxic chemicals; incremental reductions, which have typically been promulgated in the past, are not sufficient to protect human health.”

“Low-level toxicity of chemicals: No acceptable levels?” was published online in PLOS Biology on December 19. The commentary is part of the series, “Challenges in Environmental Health: Closing the Gap between Evidence and Regulations Collection,” published in PLOS Biology beginning December 18 with an overview from Linda Birnbaum, Director of NIEHS, and journalist Liza Gross.

Originally posted on 20 December 2017

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