"Toxicology: The Learning Curve"

"Researchers say that some chemicals have unexpected and potent effects at very low doses — but regulators aren't convinced."

"Near the end of an adventurous life spent wandering the fortress towns of central Europe, clashing with blood-letters and other tradition-bound healers of the day, the irascible sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus wrote a defence of his unorthodox use of mercury, opium and other potentially dangerous medicines. "All things are poison, and nothing is without poison: the dose alone makes a thing not poison," he wrote. Centuries later, after many of his once-radical ideas found wide acceptance, Paracelsus's pronouncement would be distilled into a pithy phrase that became foundational dogma for the modern science of toxicology: "the dose makes the poison."

The contemporary interpretation of Paracelsus's famous declaration, for which he is often called the father of toxicology, is that dose and effect move together in a predictably linear fashion, and that lower exposures to a hazardous compound will therefore always generate lower risks. This idea is not just a philosophical abstraction; it is the core assumption underlying the system of chemical-safety testing that arose in the mid-twentieth century. Risk assessors typically look for adverse effects of a compound over a range of high doses and, from there, extrapolate downwards to establish health standards — always assuming, like Paracelsus, that chemicals toxic at high doses are much less risky at lower, real-world levels.

But what if the Paracelsian presumption is wrong? What if, for a large and potent class of compounds, lower doses pose higher risks? A growing number of academic researchers are making just such a claim for endocrine disrupters, a large group of synthetic chemicals able to interact with cellular hormone receptors."

Dan Fagin reports for Nature News October 24, 2012.

Thursday, October 25, 2012