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Chemicals in the Environment

Pharmacology and toxicology are the same science. Both contemplate the effects of chemicals on living systems. The basic principles are virtually the same. The only difference in the respective textbooks is the example chemicals chosen to illustrate a particular point.

It is evident that chemicals that do us good (pharmacology) are preferable to those that do us harm (toxicology). So how best to be on the lookout for the latter, i.e. chemicals in the environment that we’d rather not come in contact with?

Clever work from Stanford displays a new approach to linking exposure to environmental chemicals to a resultant disease state. Dubbed environment-wide association study (EWAS), the method is essentially a statistical one that links epidemiologic data on Americans’ health (and disease) status with analytical measurements of which chemicals are actually in a person’s body (PLoS  ONE 5:5 [ May 2010]).

The test case is type-2 diabetes and its association with 266 specific potentially toxic substances. It turns out there is a high association for propensity to diabetes with exposure to heptachlor epoxide (a pesticide-breakdown product) and gamma tocopherol (present in some vitamin E formulations).

In principle this approach could be greatly expanded to all manner of diseases and exposure to a wide variety of chemicals. It’s the toxicological equivalent of the “lab on a chip” that carries out prodigious numbers of reactions. The technology might even foreshadow a reasonable basis for implementing the testing requirements of TSCA and REACH in a rational and affordable way. My goodness would that be progress.

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Periodic Tabloid is an ongoing record of the activities of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s staff and scholars, whose work tells the story of chemistry over the centuries up to modern times. Stay tuned for behind-the-scenes coverage of our events, exclusive supplemental materials to our publications, analysis of pressing contemporary scientific issues, and much more.