Human Sample Project Shows How Chemicals Contaminate Our Bodies
A government-led initiative in Germany to systematically monitor human exposure to a variety of chemicals, including lead, mercury, and PFAs (referred to as “forever chemicals”), provides a window into how chemical pollutants are contaminating humans.
Helmed by a team of scientists from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering, the project has two goals:
- To reveal which substances have already accumulated in large – and potentially very harmful – quantities in the human body.
- To confirm whether bans and regulations of some of those substances have, in fact, worked.
Data from the program demonstrate that regulations on chemicals are indeed effective – blood levels of lead and mercury have notably fallen in Germany as well as other industrialized countries, thanks to efforts to curb human exposure to these substances. However, the widespread use of toxic man-made chemicals like PFAs – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – has given the scientists’ work a new sense of urgency.
What is the ESB?
Housed in a former military bunker outside Munster in Germany, the German Environmental Specimen Bank (ESB) stores about 400,000 samples from more than 17,000 volunteers in four disparate locations in the country. This provides a national picture of chemical contamination in Germany. The human samples collected are primarily blood, urine, and plasma. Notably, the samples are only collected from volunteers between the ages of 20 and 29, excluding people who may have had high exposure to chemicals through their occupation.
The samples are stored at the Munster facility in extremely low temperatures and are sent to external labs where they are analyzed for the presence of toxic chemicals. Operating for more than four decades, the ESB’s human sample archive is the best and longest-running record of its kind.
What Have Scientists Learned?
The data generated from the analysis of human samples stored in Germany’s ESB have been studied by researchers from other countries. Some of the findings are positive:
- Mercury levels in blood and urine fell by 57 percent and 86 percent, respectively, between 1995 and 2018, according to one study
- The average level of lead in the blood decreased by about 87 percent between 1981 and 2019 (based on data derived from more than 3,800 young adults in the city of Munster)
However, other findings are troubling. Traces of toxic PFAs – along with other man-made chemical compounds, like phthalates – have been found in every single human sample since the ESB first started looking for them. This shows that these chemicals are omnipresent, underscoring how imperative it is to regulate their use.
PFAs are also referred to as “forever chemicals” because they take hundreds of years to break down naturally. They have been linked to harm to the immune and reproductive systems, low birth weight, cancers, and other diseases.
Phthalates have been identified as potentially interfering with reproduction and potentially causing harm to the development of children’s brains when they are exposed to chemicals in vitro. Studies based on data from the German ESB show that overall exposure to phthalates has been increasing.
Regulations in the EU versus the U.S.
PFAs are found in water, air, fish, and soil. There are thousands of PFA chemicals found in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products.
The European Union has some of the strictest chemical regulations in the world and is currently considering a ban on 12,000 substances linked to hormonal disruption and various diseases. One of the main targets of this ban is PFAs.
In the United States, Maine was the first U.S. state to ban the sale of products containing intentionally added PFAs. More states have implemented bans on different categories of products with various enforcement dates. In December 2022, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accelerated efforts to reduce discharges of PFAs into waterways.
Phthalates are chemicals that make plastic softer and more flexible. Since 1999, Europe has banned or regulated individual phthalates. However, manufacturers have slightly modified the formula of banned substances, inventing new, unregulated chemicals with similar features. This accounts for increased human exposure to phthalates.
In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of eight phthalates in children’s toys in 2017. However, phthalates are still used in a wide range of commercial and industrial products, including cosmetics, food packaging, and personal care products. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), phthalates are universally present in human bodies.
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