Environmental toxins cannot be avoided. They are in the furniture we have in our living room, in the sweater we pull over our head to keep warm, in the frying pan we use to prepare taco mince for the weekend. And it is, not to forget, in the taco itself.
Scientists in Tromsø have mapped the occurrence of environmental toxins in the Arctic population for years. They describe their own findings as frightening.
- We are saturated with environmental toxins. They are everywhere, both the more modern environmental toxins such as fluorocarbons, which exist in clothes and impregnation, as well as the “old” ones, such as pesticides and DPD, Jan Brox says. He is Head of Department at the Environmental Lab at Tromsø University Hospital (UNN) and UiT Norway’s Arctic University.
Pesticides and PCB were banned as early as 30 years ago, though they are still found in people. The reason for that is their long half-life time.
May cause ADHD and autism
The environmental toxins PCB, DDT, DDE, phthalates, parabens and PFAS have a so-called anti-androgen effect. This means that they imitated the effect of female gender hormones and thus block out the effect of male gender hormones. That can have many and serious consequences.
Environmental toxins may also lead to male fetuses’ aborting, they increase the risk of cancer, reduce the immune defense system and make it more difficult to conceive. However, what Brox and his colleagues fear the most, is the effect they have on fetuses in the womb.
- Data are beginning to come in that connect high environmental toxin levels in the mother to the brain development of children. The central nervous system (CNS) is affected, which in turn may trigger diseases such as ADHD and autism. One has also conducted IQ measurings of soldiers over a long period of time. We see there that the IQ was on the rise until 1995, when it turned and started reversing again. Many now ask if that may be due to environmental toxins, Brox says.
Environmental Toxins Lab, Tromsø University Hospital
Was developed to be able to measure environmental toxins in population surveys, primarily for research purposes.
As knowledge about the biological effects of environmental toxins is developed, this can be used to advise.
Uses MS technology
The lab is a collaboration between Troms University Hospital, the University of Tromsø and Helse Nord (the regional public owner of hospitals).
Constitutes a part of the Lab Medicine Division at the university hospital. Thus, one and the same blood sample can be examined for both environmental toxin exposure as well as its biological effects in one go, as all analyses are conducted at the same department.
Another environmental toxin consequence is the destroying of men’s sperm quality, which makes them less fertile. Studies show that western men’s sperm quality has been reduced by some 50 percent over the past 40 years. According to Norwegian broadcaster NRK, 16 percent of Norwegian men have so poor sperm quality that they are not likely to be able to conceive with their partner without fertility treatment.
This is not a beneficial development, the professor states.
Formula 1 research
The environmental toxins lab is a collaboration between Troms University Hospital, the University of Tromsø and Helse Nord (the regional public owner of hospitals). It is no coincidence that this research takes place in the Arctic.
- Environmental toxins are transported with air and ocean streams. And when these meet a cooler climate, which we have in the Arctic, they fall down. That is why we see more frequent occurrences of environmental toxins in the Arctic population compared to elsewhere in the world, Brox says.
It is very difficult to measure the occurrence of environmental toxins in humans. That is why it was crucially necessary to have a separate lab and competent researchers on the job. Brox and his colleague Jon Øyvind Odland started working on the realization of this lab more than ten years ago. They have gradually got it up and running.
Over the past few years, the researchers at the Tromsø lab have conducted large population survey investigations amongst the population in Norway as well as from other parts of the world, amongst them Russia and Africa, with materials from other parts of the world being sent to the lab.
- This kind of research is necessary, but also costly and difficult. We use mass spectrometry, which is often referred to as the Formula 1 analysis equipment of research. However, we are also beginning to have results, results confirming our hypotheses, Brox says.
Amongst the confirmed results is higher blood pressure and cholesterol as a result of environmental toxins – amongst teenagers in Tromsø. Environmental toxins also affect humans’ immunology system and DNA. That may lead to young people developing cancer. Whether or not it may lead to inheritable DNA changes is not known yet, though there is a theoretical possibility that it does.
- This is scary. We see environmental toxins having direct consequences in humans, in young people, Brox says. He is, nevertheless, happy that the results have led to increased attention to the problem.
- There is growing recognition of this being a serious problem and an important phenomenon about which to raise awareness.
- But what can be done?
- There are a series of measures to take that may limit the extent. The most important thing is to get information about sources of environmental toxin influence out there, so that people can learn to avoid them. Good, old-fashioned public information service, in other words. However, the industry that produces for instance clothes containing environmental toxins has strong economic interests. We are talking big business. That is why one either needs a full ban, or consumers must take responsibility and stop buying products containing these toxins. Researchers at the Institute of Social Medicine in Tromsø have concluded that the levels of banned environmental toxins in humans decrease over time. This goes to show that a ban helps. However, research and knowledge about the extent, sources and consequences is crucial.
Kills 1,000 every year
Amongst those who have become aware of the environmental toxins problem is the Nordic Council of Ministers. A box fresh report from the Council tries to find the social economic cost of pollution of fluorides across all of Europe. The survey is based on human lives lost due to people’s being exposed to perfluorinated substances (PFAS). And according to the report, the list of transgressions is long. PFAS substances kill as many as 750 to 1,250 Nordic citizens ever year. In addition, PFAS poisoning leads to 130 Nordic babies being born underweight.
This means that the Nordic countrues spend 21-35 billion Danish kroner each year to solve the problems caused by environmental toxins and mending the holes in public economy created by increased mortality.
Many of the environmental toxins people in the western world take in, come from the food we eat, from “modern diets”. If we for instance compare the average West European to the Inuit in Greenland, whose diet largely consists of seal and whale, the former has a far higher frequency of heard and cardiac disease in comparison.
Greenland’s population has by and large been exempted from heart and cardio disease. Until now.
- Environmental toxins come with the ocean streams and pollutes seals and whales. That has led many of the eskimos to transition into a western diet, which in turn leads to more frequent occurrences of heart and cardio diseases amongst a population for which this has hitherto not been a problem. That is a dilemma, Brox recognizes and continues:
- At the same time, we see that the health effects of the traditional diet is greater than the negative effect of environmental toxins – with adult males. Reservations are in place for pregnant women and children.
Cooperates with AMAP
Brox and his colleagues at the environmental lab has cooperated with the AMAP program in its work to map environmental toxins in humans. AMAP refers to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, a working group under the Arctic Council that works on monitoring and exploring how pollution affects the environment and human health in the Arctic.
- The AMAP has no formal role in the environmental lab in Tromsø, however, we have a long-standing and solid cooperation between AMAP and the University of Tromsø regarding environmental toxins and human health, says Rolf Rødven, Managing Director of AMAP.
The phenomenon mentioned about, about the dilemma, is something the working group wants to investigate further.
Jan Brox is very happy that the University of Tromsø, the University Hospital (UNN) and Helse Nord have demonstrated understanding and their will to get the environmental lab up and running, and for the necessary funding to be provided.
Environmental toxins are one of the priorities of the university’s new strategy. That means that the environmental lab is to be further expanded and can intensify its work on creating and spreading knowledge about environmental toxins.
As late as last autumn, the board of Helse Nord received an orientation about the environmental lab in which the importance of its contributing to the establishing and operations of the lab was stressed.
“The CEO argues that the establishing and development of the environmental lab at the University Hospital has been of major significance for the detection, exposure, storing and health consequences of environmental toxins for the population in the entire Arctic through large-scale analysis of human test samples. It is crucial that this work may continue and develop further in order to strengthen preventive health work for the next generation of people in Northern Norway and the Arctic”, Helse Nord CEO Lars Vorland wrote to his own board of directors.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.