These types of tests are not yet available to the public, but are being developed in various laboratories, and researchers are working on ways to test for additional chemicals.
That’s important because new chemicals are being developed all the time, and companies often don’t have to pass rigorous safety tests before they can start using them, Marcit says. “They are coming to the market almost every day,” he said. “[We need to] Before we measure them, understand what they are and what they release.
Controlling the health effects of these chemicals requires a lot of work. We are often trying to understand the effects of chronic exposure to low levels of pollution, says Ian Mudway, who studies the health effects of air pollution at Imperial College London in England. “It’s like thinking about smoking,” he said. “Cigarettes don’t kill you, but the long-term cumulative effect of the toxic burden… drives disease forward.
According to Mudway, it is very difficult to adjust a person’s long-term exposure to chemicals from the blood or other body tissues. Most measures only indicate a person’s short-term exposure.
Some researchers are working on personal sensors that monitor a person’s exposure to a set of chemicals over time. And some of these sensors—like air quality monitors—are available for purchase. But neither Mudway nor Marsit use them.
This is partly because they provide very limited information. An air quality monitor can tell you about some minor levels or indicate how much air flow there is in the room. But it doesn’t tell you if or how these pollutants are getting into your body. This can depend on things like your breathing rate, your metabolic rate, and the amount of skin exposed to air, “all of these things become very important,” says Mudway.
The more sensitive tests being developed are, for now, limited to research labs—your doctor can’t administer them. Although clinicians can perform exposure tests, it can be difficult to know what to do with the results. While we are getting better at measuring our exposure to different chemicals, we have a long way to go to understand how they affect our health.
“We can measure many of these [exposures]”However, for many of these chemicals, we may not even know what a safe level is,” says Marcit. Even for relatively well-understood pollutants, our assumptions can be wrong. “We set a safe level, but in reality it will be much lower than that,” he says.