Scientists, healthcare professionals and especially people with chemical intolerance have achieved a victory that took years to win. In a nutshell: High-level U.S. policymakers now say chemical intolerance needs serious investigation.
The recently concluded “National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposures,” sponsored by several government agencies, issued a detailed statement in October 2011 that summed up two years of deliberation among hundreds of experts. The statement, in brief, calls for intensified work to understand chemicals and their health effects.
I think the statement will influence health policy and promote new research and clinical inquiry. Progress in the science, diagnosis and treatment of chemically-induced illness has been painfully slow. I’m excited to see this new development.
The National Conversation, in its final statement, urged intensified study of:
- Health effects of chemicals, including low-dose, multiple and cumulative exposures
- Individual susceptibility, including the interplay between genes and environment
- Community vulnerability and disproportionate effects from past exposures
- Effectiveness of interventions to protect public health
To me, one of the most important recommendations called for human studies using environmentally controlled research units. It said: “Studies of variation in susceptibility as manifested by chemical sensitivity/intolerance, including clinical studies conducted in facilities adequate for this purpose, are needed.”
This recommendation for research facilities first appeared in a report commissioned by the State of New Jersey that I co-authored in 1989 with Nicholas A. Ashford, Ph.D., J.D., professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as in subsequent editions of our book Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes.
Here is an excerpt from recommendations in the National Conversation’s report “Chapter 3: Achieve a More Complete Scientific Understanding of Chemicals and Their Health Effects”:
“Recommendation 3.5: Improve understanding of individual susceptibility to chemical exposures.”
“Those seeking to protect the public from the adverse effects of chemical exposures need a better understanding of variations in individual susceptibility to help prioritize prevention and treatment efforts. Some individuals in certain groups (e.g., developing fetuses, children, pregnant women, the elderly, disabled persons, persons with chronic diseases, persons with previous heightened sensitivity to chemical exposures) exhibit unique susceptibility to chemical exposures. Some of this variability in susceptibility may be related to genetic variation, acquired epigenetic changes, health effects from previous exposures, or nonchemical stressors. To improve the understanding of these variations, funding agencies should continue to support research into mechanisms of variation in individual susceptibility and the role of such variations in the observed burden of environmentally related disease. Studies of variation in susceptibility as manifested by chemical sensitivity/intolerance, including clinical studies conducted in facilities adequate for this purpose, are needed. Population-based studies of exposed groups may yield additional insights.”
“Further, the federal government should support an existing working group or convene an interdisciplinary group of scientists and clinicians from federal agencies, NGOs/public interest groups, industry, academic institutions, and representatives of affected patient communities to develop a research agenda on chemical sensitivity/intolerance.”
The National Conversation was a two-year collaborative process that produced an action agenda in June 2011 on new ways to protect the public from harmful chemical exposures. In October 2011, the leadership issued its final recommendations at an implementation strategy session in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Public Health Association (APHA).
I chaired the National Conversation’s subgroup on Individual Susceptibility, and served as a member of the larger Scientific Understanding Work Group, one of six working groups assigned to various aspects of chemical exposure. The work group issued a full-text action agenda.
As part of their mission to advance the public’s health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry supported the National Conversation. Dozens of government agency, nonprofit and industry experts and thousands of members of the public were involved in developing the recommendations.