Photo of a barrel of toxic substances
A major new EU research initiative will track citizens' day-to-day exposure to toxic substances

Tracking toxic exposures – a major new EU initiative

29 November, 2012

Natural Health News — New technologies for sensing chemicals that people are exposed to and monitoring their effects in the body will help scientists work towards a complete picture of how environmental pollutants influence health.

A just-launched EU initiative will employ new technologies for sensing chemicals that people are exposed to every day and monitoring their effects in the body.

Researchers will use smartphones equipped with GPS and environmental sensors to monitor potential hazards that study participants are exposed to. This information will be combined with blood and urine analysis to investigate whether exposure to risk factors leaves chemical fingerprints that can be detected in bodily fluids.

The ‘exposome’

The initiative consists of two projects that address complementary aspects of what the scientists have termed the “exposome”.

The exposome is the sum of all of the environmental components, including lifestyle factors and chemicals we are exposed to, that influence our health over the course of a lifetime. Both projects will have a particular focus on multiple chemical exposures in food, air, and water during critical periods of life.

The first of the two projects has been given the name Exposomics. It is an €8.7 million (£7 million$11 million) study into the effect of toxic exposure on adult health and involves 12 partner institutions led by Imperial College London, with the participation of IARC.

Beyond genetics

The scientist leading the Exposomics project, Professor Paolo Vineis from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, says:

“The sequencing of the human genome has provided a wealth of information about genetic susceptibility involved in disease, but it has become clear that the diseases with the greatest burden, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, are mainly caused by factors other than genetics. These are likely to include aspects of lifestyle and the environment, but the precise roles of different factors in causing diseases are not well understood”.

Dr Christopher Wild, the Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, who first developed the concept of the exposome and is a partner on the Exposomics project,adds:

“It is a major step forward to have European funding directed to this area of research, which is critical for effective prevention of a number of non-communicable diseases”.

Early life exposure

The second is the HELIX Project, carries a similar cost and is led by the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL), involves 13 partner institutions.

This project will build an early-life exposome. Pregnancy and the early years of life are well recognised to be periods of high susceptibility to environmental damage with lifetime consequences.

Dr Martine Vrijheid, from CREAL and coordinator of HELIX, adds, “Characterisation of the exposome in early life can provide very effective tools for disease prevention, given that interventions at that time can reshape biological programming and shift the body’s developmental track to the normal function”.

This, says Vrijheld, makes early life a major starting point for development of the exposome.

Low levels, big effects

Says Professor Vineis, “We are all exposed to low levels of environmental pollutants every day, such as diesel exhaust, tobacco smoke, and pesticides. It’s very difficult to assess the health effects of these exposures, because often there are no unexposed people to compare with. These projects will make use of new technologies that allow us to measure personal exposure to pollutants with much greater sensitivity and study their effects in the body. The results will help us develop a better understanding of how exposures to many different pollutants combine to influence our risk of diseases”.

Dr Vrijheid adds that “the results of the projects will help us to form a global view on how various types of exposures co-exist and jointly impact on health”.

Together, this joint launch marks the EU’s biggest investment in environmental health research to date. The first results from the project are expected within the next two years.