Mattias Öberg: "The new toxicology shows the way"

"Imagine you want to build a house. Wouldn't it make more sense to think through the robustness of the design before starting construction than after your family's moved in? But when it comes to the use of chemicals, our thinking as a society lacks such a safety perspective. In recent decades, we have seen several examples of substances being adopted on a large scale and then shown to be harmful to both human health and the environment.

Mattias Öberg. Photo: Amina Manzoor

Some commentators argue that we have become addicted to safety, that the risk regarding chemicals has been hyped up - a bit of muck purges the stomach. Others look with concern as allergic disorders continue to rise among children, more and more young people have difficulties with concentration and learning, and as hormone-related cancers become increasingly common.

In my opinion, there is much to suggest that we may have underestimated the risks of chemicals.

Firstly: We have only studied a tiny number of chemicals. The proportion of environmental toxicants that are regularly measured in the population is just a few dozen of the 145 000 different substances that are registered in the EU.

Secondly: We have done research on individual stages of the life cycle. Knowledge of the body's ability to form and develop new cells well into adulthood shows that we need to take a long view over entire lifespans. New results show that exposure in the womb affects disease incidence in much later life. Even before conception, exposure to chemicals can affect us through newly discovered epigenetic mechanisms, meaning that what you are exposed to can affect the health of your grandchildren.

Thirdly: We have looked at one disease at a time. Someone studies diabetes while someone else does allergy research. But the immune systems and endocrine systems affect every cell in our bodies, and experiments have shown these systems to be susceptible to the effects of chemicals. Now we need to generate a new understanding of how the underlying mechanisms are interrelated and create effects that can vary from one individual to another.

Significant changes are already taking place in the view of how chemical substances can damage our health and how we should be working with chemical safety. We researchers have begun to speak in terms of 'the new toxicology', which seeks the answers to how different substances affect cell function rather than at what amount of exposure individual diseases can be observed. The new toxicology presupposes that we are different as people, and that throughout the life cycle, we are exposed to a cocktail of natural and antropogenic (man-made) substances.

But to create a chemically safe society in the future, the new toxicology also has to be out there among the innovative chemical and biotechnological companies. The ability to benefit from chemicals will not only affect our economy and the gadgets we surround ourselves with. Also our ability to cure diseases and slow the on-going climate change will demand new molecular achievements. Like it or not, we live in a chemical society.

If Sweden as a nation is to continue playing a leading role in developing new pharmaceuticals and other chemical products and materials, there needs to be a steady flow of skilled engineers, biomedical scientists and toxicologists who are already working together in the early development of new products that avoid future health problems. Ushering in the new toxicology will reduce the risk of projects falling at the finishing line in their attempt to meet today's increasingly tough demands on chemical safety.

Imagine you want to use a new chemical. Wouldn't it make more sense to find out if it's safe before allowing yourself and others to be exposed?"

Mattias Öberg is a toxicology researcher at the Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, and blogs about environmental toxins at