A German bunker full of blood and urine has the best track record of how chemicals contaminate us
Lead followed a similar trend. Data from 3,851 young adults in Münster show that the average blood lead level fell by around 87% between 1981 and 2019. The main reason: Germany’s ban on leaded petrol came into force in 1988, and car exhaust no longer pollutes the air with lead. .
“No manufacturer deliberately puts harmful substances on the market,” Weber believes. “But sometimes it’s only over time that we learn the true toxicity of certain chemicals. This is what makes biomonitoring like ours so important for society as a whole.
Although certain tests are mandatory before using new substances in commercial products, data on long-term health effects are scarce for most of them. The number of synthetic chemicals is increasing so rapidly that it is nearly impossible to track their individual effects, let alone their combined effects.
The European Union probably has the strictest chemical regulations. In April, the European Commission published a “roadmap of restrictions”: up to 12,000 substances linked to hormone disruption, cancer, obesity or diabetes could be banned, officials said. According to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a network of citizens’ groups, it would be the “biggest ban on toxic chemicals” to date, and it could be a blow to the petrochemical industry .
A primary target: PFAS, nicknamed “eternal chemicals” because they take hundreds of years to break down naturally. Food wraps and flame retardants, waterproof clothing and outdoor gear, umbrellas and non-stick pans all use toxic PFAS substances.
Traces of these substances and others such as phthalates, which are used as solvents and plasticizers, have been found in virtually every sample since BSE began looking for them, according to Lermen and Weber. Chemicals are ubiquitous and it is impossible to reliably trace their source. This is why it is extremely important to regulate their use.
Since 1999, Europe has banned or regulated individual phthalates, identified as endocrine disruptors that may interfere with reproduction. Manufacturers have responded by tweaking the formula of banned substances very slightly to invent new, unregulated chemicals with similar characteristics. Studies derived from the German BSE show that overall exposure to phthalates has increased.
“This clearly indicates that the number of chemical substitutes is constantly increasing – and we don’t yet know much about their effects,” says Kolossa-Gehring.
It’s important that people know as much as possible about the chemicals they’re exposed to, Till Weber says before closing the green door to the bunker for the day.
“We don’t want to scare anyone or tell them to stop using plastic in their lives. But we all need to become aware of what surrounds us and, possibly, also inside our body.