Assessment of chemical exposures is key to understanding neurological diseases and disorders

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03 November 2022

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Cory-Slechta DA. Chemical exposures: the neglected environmental risk factors for neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders. Presented at: American Neurological Association Annual Meeting; October 23-25; chicago

Cory-Slechta does not report relevant financial disclosures.

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CHICAGO — Environmental chemical exposure is a risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders, an expert said at the 2022 American Neurological Association annual meeting.

“There are more than 80,000 chemical products, of which more than 41,000 are currently active”, Deborah A. Cory-SlechtaDoctor, from the department of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, during a presentation. “Given the vast number of chemicals in commerce and their variable potential to influence human health, why are they largely ignored as risk factors?”

Air pollution from chimneys

Addressing chemical exposure and its relationship to neurological problems requires understanding the type of contamination and biological risk factors. Source: Adobe Stock.

One of the main reasons, Cory-Slechta noted, is that most diseases and disorders arise because of factors present before birth: genetics, parental lifestyle, prenatal problems and the external environment. After birth, she said, the same factors are present along with the cumulative effects of diet, exercise, stress, lifestyle choices, behavior, socioeconomic status and aging.

Chemical exposures are just one of many external factors, he added, but despite high-profile cases of such exposures, they don’t seem to cause alarm. Furthermore, the effect sizes of these exposures in the general population tend to be small.

According to Cory-Slechta, lead that leaches into bones has a half-life of decades, and for pregnant or postpartum people, the element can return to the bloodstream, where the fetus or infant may be exposed.

However, ultrafine particles from environmental pollutants can reach the brain through inhalation and bypass the blood-brain barrier where they cannot be detected with serum markers, he said. Once there, these contaminants can affect the prefrontal cortex, olfactory regions, the vagus nerve, and the brainstem.

Ultimately, according to Cory-Slechta, clinicians must fully understand the complexities of chemical exposures to get to the root of neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. That includes looking at traffic-generated air pollution as the primary source; chemical reactions of air and weather pollutants as secondary sources; natural sources, such as volcanic eruptions; and stationary sources, such as power plants.

In addition, daily exposures to airborne toxins, organic carbon compounds and various metals through contact with household items should be considered, he said.

“From a risk management standpoint, one could also examine the economic costs of addressing these chemicals in a cost-benefit analysis,” Cory-Slechta said.

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