A “Matthew Effect” in
the research agenda
Two papers published in the last month have argued that the way toxicology research is incentivised is actively countering the discipline’s ability to produce the sort of research which is useful for preventing harm to health from chemical pollutants.
In one of the papers (Sobek et al. 2016), researchers from Stockholm find that Swedish scientists engaged in environmental monitoring tend to look for chemicals they know they will find, most commonly look for legacy pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs, and have left 98% of REACH-registered chemicals uninvestigated.
Although monitoring legacy pollutants is important, there is a question as to how much of this needs to be done and how it ought to be organised; and the major problem is that, if nobody is looking into emerging substances, how is anyone going to identify the next major pollution problem?
The second paper, “Paracelsus Revisited” (Grandjean 2016) laments how the demands for documentation, replication and reinforcement of existing findings, coupled with other determinants of research priorities among academics (such as feasibility of the study, availability of funding and pace of publication) are contributing to inertia and inflexibility in toxicological research.
The worry expressed in both papers is that, while established hazards become ever-better understood, new hazards are too-rarely investigated: in effect, academic research spends too much time investigating the ground illuminated by the street lamps, but not enough on increasing the amount of ground which is lit up.
To illustrate the problem, of the environmental chemicals identified as a top research priority by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2006, barely any have been covered by academic research even today, while the Swedish Research Council for the Environment only funded three scientific research projects with the aim of identifying emerging contaminants.
Somehow, the way research is incentivised needs to change, so that the determinants of research priorities stop militating against the fundamental objectives of toxicology. This is going to be difficult, as many of the drivers of research present catch-22s. For example, if researchers are not looking for a chemical or assessing its health effects, there is no data to justify regulatory action; yet, regulatory action is a significant driver of the research which produces this data in the first place.
Overcoming what both papers describe as a “Matthew Effect” in research will require careful investigation of the mechanisms by which research objectives are prioritised, and (above all) imaginative interventions which will break the feedback loops that result in too much time being spent on activities which might be effective for keeping a research unit a going concern, but which do not service the big picture of toxicology.
Ask An Expert: Are Antibacterial Soaps Actually Bad For Me? But while modern day antibacterial soaps have been marketed since the 1980s as the superior germ-fighting version of their Plain Jane counterparts, the last few years have seen a growing debate surrounding their effectiveness and even their safety. That debate has largely centered around the chemical triclosan, an antimicrobial that’s also found its way into everything from toothpastes to pet shampoo. (MedicalDaily.com)
Pesticides in Produce. Experts at Consumer Reports believe that organic is always the best choice because it is better for your health, the environment, and the people who grow our food. The risk from pesticides on conventional produce varies from very low to very high, depending on the type of produce and on the country where it’s grown. The differences can be dramatic. For instance, eating one serving of green beans from the U.S. is 200 times riskier than eating a serving of U.S.-grown broccoli. (Consumer Reports)
New Evidence About the Dangers of Monsanto’s Roundup. Until recently, the fight over Roundup has mostly focused on its active ingredient, glyphosate. But mounting evidence, including one study published in February, shows it’s not only glyphosate that’s dangerous, but also chemicals listed as “inert ingredients” in some formulations of Roundup and other glyphosate-based weed killers. Though they have been in herbicides — and our environment — for decades, these chemicals have evaded scientific scrutiny and regulation in large part because the companies that make and use them have concealed their identity as trade secrets. (The Intercept)
Official EDCs statement confirms potency ‘not relevant’ for ID. The final version of the “consensus statement” on identification of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), agreed at a meeting of top scientific experts in Berlin, says that the controversial issue of potency “is not relevant” for the identification of a compound as an EDC. (Chemical Watch) | Full statement here: http://bit.ly/1O1AMh4.
June 2016 Science Bulletin: antimicrobials increase risk of adverse birth outcomes; how to define EDCsJune 13, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Posted in News and Science Bulletins | Leave a comment
June 2016 Science Bulletin
Development, triclosan | Association of birth outcomes with fetal exposure to parabens, triclosan and triclocarban in an immigrant population in Brooklyn, New York. This study provides the first evidence of associations between antimicrobials and potential adverse birth outcomes in neonates. Findings are consistent with animal data suggesting endocrine-disrupting potential resulting in developmental and reproductive toxicity.
Lou Gehrig’s Disease, POPs | Association of Environmental Toxins With Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. In this study, persistent environmental pollutants measured in blood were significantly associated with ALS and may represent modifiable ALS disease risk factors.
Thyroid disease, flame retardants | PBDE flame retardants, thyroid disease, and menopausal status in U.S. women. Exposure to BDEs 47, 99, and 100 is associated with thyroid disease in a national sample of U.S. women, with greater effects observed post-menopause, suggesting that the disruption of thyroid signaling by PBDEs may be enhanced by the altered estrogen levels during menopause.
Defining “endocrine disrupter” | Scientific Issues Relevant to Setting Regulatory Criteria to Identify Endocrine Disrupting Substances in the European Union. There is scientific agreement regarding the adequacy of the WHO definition of EDs. The potency concept is not relevant to the identification of particularly serious hazards such as EDs. As is common practice for carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxicants, a multi-level classification of ED based on the WHO definition, and not considering potency, would be relevant (corresponding to option 3 proposed by the European Commission).
Obesity, BPA | Bisphenol A promotes adiposity and inflammation in a nonmonotonic dose-response way in five-week old male and female C57BL/6J mice fed a low-calorie diet. In this study, we found that five-week-old male and female C57BL/6J mice exposed to four dosages of BPA (5, 50, 500 and 5000 μ g/kg/day) by oral intake for 30 days showed significantly increased body weight and fat mass in a nonmonotonic dose-dependent manner when fed a chow diet (CD). The effect occurred even at the lowest concentration (5μ g/kg/day), lower than the tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 50 μ g/kg/day for BPA.