Policy and Law
By Tyler Irving
Posted March 2012
Integrating Emerging Technologies into Chemical Safety Assessment, a report recently released by the Council of Canadian Academies, urges chemical regulators to modernize the tests and protocols they use.
Currently accepted protocols to determine health effects of industrial chemicals such as toxicity and carcinogenicity were developed decades ago. They primarily consist of in vivo studies using a small number of test animals exposed to a relatively high dose of a given chemical. The limitations of this approach are well known: such studies only examine outcomes and say little about the biochemical mode of action by which they occur. As a result, it can be difficult to extrapolate the results of these studies to humans. Modern techniques can give a more complete picture of a chemical’s effects. For example, computer (in silico) models can compare the structure of chemicals about which little is known to ones that have been extensively studied. This screens for those chemicals most likely to cause health risks. In vitro studies use cell cultures to examine how particular biochemical pathways are affected. “The new approach focuses on how it happens, rather than what happens,” says Leonard Ritter, professor emeritus in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph and chair of the 15-member expert panel that wrote the report. “It’s taking advantage of everything we’ve learned in the last 30 years to solve the same basic question: is a given chemical likely to have human health effects or not?”
In addition to giving a more complete picture, some of the new techniques allow for high-throughput screening, which could help deal with the huge backlog of industrial chemicals for which data on human health effects is poor. For example, in 2006 Ottawa listed more than 4,000 data-poor chemicals that require further attention from toxicologists. “There simply isn’t enough capacity to deal with that many substances,” says Ritter. “These new methods can move through a large number of chemicals much more efficiently.”
While some of the new techniques are already in use, others require further development. In the report, Ritter and the rest of the panel have outlined a detailed roadmap for integrating the new techniques into existing regulatory frameworks. Personnel will need to be trained to use new methods and communication is required to ensure that the public accepts the new science. Ritter believes it is up to all stakeholders: government, academia, advocacy groups and the public, to ensure these new techniques are adopted and chemical regulations are improved. “The measure of success will ultimately be enthusiasm,” says Ritter. “It’s not going to happen unless there’s a broadly based interest in making it happen.”
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