14 December 2012

Ticking diseases time bomb linked to pollution

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Heavy industry’s reluctance to introduce clean technology means that the mutations induced by air pollution in today’s children could herald higher incidence of diseases when they reach adulthood

In 2009, Czech and Slovak scientists involved in EU funded Envirisk project, completed their analysis of the impact of air impurity on population health, based on 15 years of past data available from their respective countries. In particular, they evaluated the impact of exposure to several air pollutants on health of children. “The environmental factors may have an impact on programming the body for future diseases,” comments Tomas Trnovec, principal investigator at the Slovak Medical University in Bratislava, in relation to his findings within the Envirisk project.

Under the project, his own work focused on assessing the impact of exposure to chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), known to be neurodevelopmental toxins and to induce hormone imbalance in the body. For example, in a study of 1,400 children in Eastern Slovakia, “we found high level of PCB inside their bodies,” explains Trnovec, “children exposed to such pollution suffered profound changes in the genes expression, which can be transmitted across the generations and linked to onset of diseases later in life.” These changes could affect their immune system, their teeth and hearing or could lead to contracting diabetes in adulthood. Updated results are due to appear in the Environmental Science and Pollution Research journal by the end of 2012

Upon completion in 2009, the project led to recommendations on how industry could go about introducing technologies capable of reducing pollution damage in the two countries. However, three years on, neither the regional authorities in the Czech Republic, nor the ministries of Health or Environment in the Slovak country have made any changes to their legislation.

The science and policy health expert network EuroHealthNet whose main goal is to promote health equity in the EU declined to comment. Some expert from outside the EU, however, believes failure to meet environmental standard is a wasted opportunity.  “Environmental research can be quite expensive and certainly the research needs to be used in order to be beneficial,” says Lee Portnoff, the founder of Drumair, a consultancy company on air sampling located in Houston, Texas, USA.

The problem, in the Czech Republic for example, is that “in the Ostrava region, the main polluter is the steel producer Arcelor Mittal. It has hardly improved its technology and threatens to move to Poland, in case the environmental laws are tightened. The government is afraid of losing jobs,” explains Radim Sram, principal investigator at the Institute of Experimental Medicine, in Prague, Czech Republic, who was a partner in the project. He believes legal action against the polluters might be required.

Meanwhile, in the absence of policy measures designed to improve people’s life, the findings of Envirisk project are only being used for genetic research and for risk assessments in populations exposed to pollution. For example, the Czech team is now examining with support from national funding whether pollution affects the rate of incidence of diseases among preschool children, using the biomarkers developed within the Envirisk project.

Unfortunately, this scenario is only too familiar to environmental health experts. The slow pace of the policy change regarding environmental health protection is not unusual.  “We shouldn't have to wait decades for change, but often we do”, comments Charles Margulis, director of communication at the Center for Environmental Health, in Broadway, Oakland, USA. He believes that what is needed is: “to create international policies founded on prevention of harm, and to promote the  businesses that make safer, healthier products.” This appears easier said than done, though.

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