What chemicals are we exposed to daily? This is a central question for an emerging field of analytical science, aimed at identifying all the chemicals around us.
In a paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers at the universities of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Queensland, Australia, undertook the task.
By analyzing the results of studies published over the past six years, they estimated that less than 2% of all chemicals were identified.
According to Victoria Turkina, who conducted the research for her PhD with Dr Sayer Samanipur at the Vant Hof Institute of Molecular Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, this limitation was underscored by the urgent need for a more proactive approach to chemicals monitoring and management so that we can effectively protect human health and the environment.
Chemical space has far more compounds than stars in the universe (Shutterstock)
Wide chemical space
To consider potential exposure to chemicals, a sample is taken from the environment (air, water, soil, sewage sludge) or from the human body (hair, blood, etc.) and analyzed using well-established techniques such as chromatography along with high-resolution comprehensive spectroscopy.
This includes already known chemicals, substances whose potential presence in the environment is still unknown, and in theory this "chemical space" houses a huge number of compounds far more than the stars in the universe.
In their new study, the researchers focused on a subset of 60,<> well-described compounds from the Norman database.
"This was a reference for determining what the analysis studies covered, and for an idea of what was being overlooked," says Turkina.
"These days, we are drowning in a giant ocean of chemicals. The chemical industry is part of that, but nature also conducts a whole range of reactions that lead to exposure, and we expose ourselves to chemicals through the things we use. Through our research, we hope to contribute to finding a solution together, because we are all in the same boat."
Researchers call for a data-driven approach until theoretical chemical space is calculated (University of Amsterdam)
Great scope for improving knowledge
According to a press release published on the University of Amsterdam's website on September 22, the researchers' analysis of 57 previous studies revealed that only about 2% of the estimated chemical area was covered.
This can indicate that actual exposure to chemicals is already very low, however it can also indicate deficiencies in the analyzes applied. According to Turkina and Samanipur, the latter is already the case.
"We need to further develop and push the environment analysis methods, develop powerful and more diverse new analytical techniques, as well as effective data analysis protocols, in order to better understand what the real chemical space we are exposed to.
"Once the boundaries of that space are determined, it becomes much easier to evaluate the results of the new study, which found that our knowledge of the chemicals around us is only 2 percent."