Toxic professor wants to find the worst offenders
Christina Rudén is a researcher who is driven by a love for life and nature. Her interest in environmental issues was first awakened in primary school, and since then it has gathered speed. In March this year she became a professor of toxicological risk assessment at KTH.
“More than a third of all babies born have some form of allergy to various substances," says Christina Rudén, with an element of seriousness in her voice.
The reason why babies acquire this unwelcome gift from day one is unclear. But the effect of the growing wave of allergies is crystal clear: it imposes great costs on society and is a major inconvenience for an individual in terms of quality of life.
“There is evidence to suggest that the generation that is now growing up may be the first to live shorter lives and will be sicker than previous generations. Of course there are many factors that influence the facts of the matter, but the influence of chemical toxins is disquieting," she says.
According to Christina Rudén, there is a lot that remains to be done in terms of toxicological risk assessment. Very much.
“My research stems from the fundamental problem that there are 150,000 different chemicals on the market in Europe. For 85 percent of these chemicals, we still know very little about how they can affect our health," she says.
In addition, there is a very interesting approach to the ignorance as regards these chemicals.
“The default setting is: What we do not know anything about; we see as harmless," says Christina Rudén.
This of course is not the case. At the same time Christina Rudén points out that not all of these chemicals are dangerous. The challenge is to find those that actually are.
One of the chemical groups that Christina Rudén and her colleagues are working with is drugs.
“Medications are well tested so that they are safe for humans, but they can also affect other organisms. We know for example that the hormones in birth control pills spread via our toilets and sewage into lakes and streams and make fish infertile. Birth control pills for people also work in the same way for fish," she says.
Similarly, antidepressants alter the behaviour of fish and thus affect the fish’s chances of survival in the wild.
In total there are about 1,200 different pharmaceutical substances on the Swedish market. Environmental data only exists for about 10 percent of them.
“But the substances that we can conduct a good environmental risk assessment for are even fewer. The pharmaceutical industry has realized that this is a problem they have to work with," she says.
According to Christina Rudén legislation relating to chemicals is far from sufficient. She and fellow researchers at KTH want to improve European legislation to make it possible to identify hazardous chemicals before they can spread to the wild or are found in breast milk.
“The EU’s new REACH legislation is an important step in the right direction, but remains deeply flawed. For example, the vast majority of chemicals will remain untested even with the new rules. Chemicals are found in many consumer products such as electronics, clothing, furniture and toys. The latest legislation is toothless. The chemical contents of products are hardly regulated at all," says Christina Rudén.
The chemicals in this area are difficult to regulate because there are so many different kinds of products. Many also consist of a number of different parts and materials produced by different subcontractors. In addition there are the factors that affect how the chemicals spread from different materials, for example due to temperature and wear.
Vision for better legislation
Christina Rudén is however cautiously positive and she has a vision.
“I dream of a law which is proactive and which can identify chemicals with unacceptable impacts on human health or the environment – the worst offenders. Furthermore, we must get better control of how they are used in different goods and consumer products. If this is possible to achieve during my lifetime, it would be fantastic," she says.
The worst offenders among the chemicals are those that do not decompose in the environment and also accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans or animals and that cause severe and permanent damage. They can, for example, affect fertility, or brain development in foetuses and young children.
Christina Rudén’s curiosity in her research area – i.e. decision making processes and toxicology - was awakened when she went through her elementary training in biology. Among other things, she discovered large differences in the different countries’ levels of chemicals and found that a chemical can be regarded as being 1,000 times more dangerous in one country in comparison to another.
“For me as a young student, it caused quite a stir. Science is supposed to be objective! In my thesis I examined exactly why risk assessors come to different conclusions about health risks. It may depend on several things. First, knowledge is developed over time; new data can lead to our reassessment of the risks.”
But she also saw that risk assessors used different ways of conducting their examinations and even recognised scientific results in different ways.
“An underlying reason is the different views as to how careful you want to be with human health and the environment," says Christina Rudén.
What types of products and chemicals do you avoid yourself?
“I avoid whatever I can. But the responsibility is in my opinion not on the shoulders of the consumer; the chemicals must be disposed of at other levels, for example, through legislation and producer responsibility. You can, however, use selective measures yourself. Many chemicals are unnecessary. For example, I buy toothpaste without antibacterial chemicals such as triclosan. In addition, I like to buy eco-labelled food," she says.
Text: Peter Larsson