From air pollutants to pesticides in food and cosmetic additives, modern life means constant exposure to environmental chemicals. Picking apart the effects will help us boost the health of humans and the planet
26 January 2022
MICHAEL SNYDER wears four watches, two on each wrist. A geneticist at Stanford University, California, he isn’t obsessed with time – only with buying us all a little more of it. The watches track his movements and vital signs such as heart rate and body temperature. He also carries round a walkie-talkie-sized device to sample everything airborne he comes into contact with, from chemicals to viruses.
Snyder is trying to help answer an age-old conundrum: how does our environment affect our health? Every time we breathe, eat, drink, wash, exercise, get dressed, go to work or climb into bed, we expose ourselves to potentially harmful substances – air pollution, synthetic chemicals, contaminated food and water, radiation, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, noise and microorganisms, to name but a few.
Every year, between 9 and 12 million people die prematurely through the cumulative effect of such exposures, mainly air and water pollution, heavy metals, synthetic chemicals and workplace carcinogens and particulates. Yet our ignorance about what exactly is going on is breathtaking. “For most exposures, probably the things you’re breathing right now, we’re not really sure what they’re doing,” says Snyder.
Now he and others are attempting to spearhead a revolution in understanding how our environments make us sick. “It might sound similar to what has been done in the past, but now we’ve got this big concept,” says Michelle Bennett at the US National Cancer Institute Center for Research Strategy. Its name is exposomics, and big it certainly is – it aims to measure everything we are exposed to throughout our lives and link this with effects on our health. Can that ever succeed?