New study to detect harmful chemicals in children’s bodies

A new study monitoring the burden of toxic chemicals on the population recently got underway in Czechia. Researchers in four different parts of the country are taking samples of children’s urine and hair to detect the presence of toxic substances, including pesticides and heavy metals.

Harmful chemical substances are literally all around us. Toxic substances, such as phthalates, pesticides and heavy metals can be found in the air, soil, but also in food, food packaging or children’s toys.

A major European project, involving the Czech National Institute of Health, is now trying to asses to what extent we are exposed to these dangerous substances.

The first part of the study, which got underway earlier this year, focuses on children. Researchers from the State Institute of Health visit families in four different parts of the country to take samples of urine and hair. Andrea Krsková is on one of these teams:

Photo illustrative: Ethan Parsa,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“After completing a questionnaire, we take a small hair sample from the child. The hair samples are then put in an envelope and handed over to the laboratory. The analysis is done on a hair sample closest to the head.”

While the hair sample will be tested for mercury content, urine will be used to determine, for instance, how much children are exposed to tobacco smoke. Šárka Dušková from the State Institute of Health shows the instrument they are using to analyse the samples:

“It is a gas chromatograph with a mass detector, which is used to determine the metabolite of nicotine, known as cotinine. This metabolite is present in the urine of both active and passive smokers. It takes approximately eight hours to analyse a single sample.”

Other labs will then look at how much toxic metal, cadmium, pesticides or harmful phthalates, which are used to soften plastics, are present in children's bodies, explains Ms. Krsková:

“They can be found in disposable medical devices, toys or furniture upholstery. Inhaling contaminated indoor air, whether it is at home or in the workplace, can be another source of phthalates. They can also enter the body through the skin, when we are using cosmetic products.”

According to Mrs. Krsková, harmful substances in the body have to be monitored over a longer time period, because some measures, such as the ban on the use of pesticide DDT, take time to prove effective:

“We tracked chlorinated pesticides in breast milk from 1994 until 2020 and we detected a significant drop. A drop in the presence of a given substance can be seen even years after its use was banned. That’s why it is important to carry out long-term and continuous monitoring.”

In the course of this year, the State Institute of Health will take samples from 200 children aged six to 11, while adults will be sampled next year. The results will then be compared across the whole of Europe.

Authors: Ruth Fraňková , Tereza Janouškovcová Bartůňková
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