European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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28 October 2019

Can the cocktail effect of chemical products contribute to autism?

reproductive toxicology

An in vitro research project conducted by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) reveals that certain substances, although non-toxic when tested alone, can, when mixed with other substances, have a negative impact on neuronal development. These results were presented by Ana Bal-Price in September 2019 at the 47th European Teratology Conference and published in the September 2019 issue of the Reproductive Toxicology journal.

To study this “cocktail effect”, the researchers used chemical products belonging to different classes, such as pesticides and other synthetic products known to contaminate human beings and associated with cognitive deficits among children.

The substances selected were: lead(II) chloride; chlorpyrifos; polybrominated diphenyl ether-47 or PBDE-47; ethanol and bisphenol A.

These cocktails were tested in vitro on a nervous system cell culture enabling the key brain development processes to be observed. We know that this development takes a long time, starting at the foetal stage and extending to adulthood. During this period, the developing nervous system is particularly vulnerable to chemical exposures.

Certain chemical cocktails had neurotoxic effects. The effects observed reflect cell changes similar to those observed in the brains of autistic children. The research confirms the hypothesis that cocktails of substances considered to be non-toxic when analysed alone can however have negative effects on development when combined with other substances, even at low levels of exposure.

In the view of Anna Bal-Price, further studies are needed to find out whether these findings can be extrapolated to in vivo situations, i.e. when people are actually exposed.

This research highlights the current limits of the regulation of chemical risks. “The mandatory tests need to be adapted to take account of these effects”, said Laurent Vogel, senior researcher at the ETUI. “In many cases, workplace exposures are multiple exposures. And prevention rules need to be tightened up, giving precedence to the substitution of hazardous substances”, he concluded.

[1] Teratology is the study of congenital and hereditary abnormalities among human beings.

Read the article in the Reproductive Toxicology journal.

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