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Over the past one hundred years, the number and volume of industrial chemicals introduced into the environment has increased exponentially. This has had an irreversible anthropogenic impact on Earth, potentially threatening planetary stability as well as human health. In a provocative feature article in Nature back in 2009, a group of scientists argued that, in order to maintain planetary stability, we must operate within set planetary boundaries—a total of nine, all of which are influenced by human activity.1 Chemical pollution was one specified threat, but could not be quantified due to the complexity of the issue, the large number of chemicals and organisms involved, and the intricacies of all the possible interactions and outcomes. A recent review on the topic concludes that chemical pollution is already so significant that ecosystems and human health are under major stress, to the point of ‘transgressing the safe operating space’.2 Thus, a lessening of the chemical burden currently affecting the environment and humans is called for.
Here the focus is more on humans, rather than planetary boundaries. That is, how does direct exposure to chemicals affect human health? Man-made chemicals are now integral to modern societies and tens of thousands of chemicals are continuously manufactured and used across the world. In the USA, an estimated 83 000 chemicals are currently inventoried,3 whereas in the European Union the number is estimated to be somewhat smaller, at 40 000–60 000. Thus, humans are potentially exposed to a significant number of chemicals from different sources, which significantly contribute to the human exposome; the total environmental exposure from conception onwards. Sources of exposure include foods and beverages, food packaging materials, furniture, clothes, cleaning products, sunscreens, cosmetics, electronic equipment, paints, building materials; and the list …
Contributors TS contributed with the writing, editing and ideas. AMV contributed with intellectual input, concept and editorial issues.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.