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Pollutants to tear your hair out!

Up to 28 problematic substances in the body. This is the worrying result of the analysis of the hair of 20 Swiss French- and German-speaking people between the ages of 2 and 77. Even toddlers are already contaminated by a cocktail of pollutants.

From pesticides in fruit and vegetables to endocrine disrupters in plastics and cosmetics. For more than twenty years, Bon à Savoir tests have shown that harmful pollutants affect our environment and consumer goods of all kinds. Although the willingness to reduce them is not very strong on the part of manufacturers and producers, the subject promises to be widely debated in the coming months. One thinks of the two popular initiatives against pesticides that should be submitted to the people in 2020. The Federal Council is recommending that both be rejected, as it considers the measures planned for agricultural policy from 2022 to be sufficient.

General contamination

Beyond the general awareness and fears that the phenomenon raises, what echo do these undesirable substances have on our bodies? This is what we wanted to find out by having the hair of 20 people - 10 French-speaking and 10 German-speaking - aged between 2 and 77 years old analysed. And, let's face it, the results show that the laws and regulations in force are not enough to protect the population. Because all the samples were contaminated by a multitude of harmful residues.
The French Laboratory toxSeek, which carried out the analyses, tracked down 1,800 organic pollutants and 46 metals. However, exhaust gas residues such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide are not taken into account, as other methods are needed to detect them. Its approach focuses on chronic toxicity, i.e. that which indicates that exposure is repeated. Because, as the laboratory points out, this is where the main toxic risk lies. The most common effect is what is known as "endocrine disruption", i.e. the deleterious action of chemical molecules on our hormonal system.

polluants dans le cheveu
Credits: Shutterstock

The consequences on the metabolism can be numerous, starting with the onset of diseases (cancer, etc.) or the malfunctioning of certain functions (reproductive faculties, etc.). The least contaminated person in the test is a 27-year-old French-speaking Swiss citizen living in Fribourg. Eight substances were detected at a significant level in his hair. His recipe? He cooks fresh dishes using only seasonal and essentially local products. "I don't smoke, eat practically no exotic foods and use hardly any cosmetics," explains the young man, who likes to spend his free time outdoors. In the majority of the participants in this test, including three children aged between 2 and 4 years, the experts detected between 10 and 20 pollutants. The hair of a little boy aged 2 years, living in the city of Zurich, contained residues of chlorobenzilate and naphthoxyacetic acid, two substances used in the cultivation of fruit. The former is an anti-mite suspected of being carcinogenic, while the latter is a growth regulator whose effects on humans have not yet been studied. They come a priori from grapes and raisins, which toddlers love.

Heavy metal eyeshadows

The two most contaminated people in the test are a 16-year-old woman from Vaud and a 77-year-old woman from Thurgau. More than 20 residues were detected at an abnormal level in their hair samples. In both cases, the body was affected by substances that penetrated mainly through the skin and respiratory tract. The gymnast, who lives in Gros de Vaud and studies in Lausanne, uses a wide range of cosmetic products. Among the residues found in her hair are preservatives, plasticisers and numerous heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium. The latter are mainly used in the pigments of khôls, eye shadows and lipsticks. For her part, the septuagenarian resides in the Thurgau countryside. She cultivates an organic vegetable garden and consumes organic produce as much as possible. However, her body contains pesticides used in the cultivation of fruit, wheat and maize. The laboratory has also detected residues of veterinary drugs and rodent poison in her body. The mystery is quickly solved: the Thurgau woman's house is close to agricultural land and a poultry farm. According to two recent studies by the Institute for the Environment in Munich and the University of Neuchâtel, the chemical treatments used in the crops can be spread by the wind for miles around.

femme qui regarde ses cheveux à la loupe
Credits: Shutterstock

Very slow degradation

It is also noted that certain organic pollutants were detected in many samples, regardless of people's lifestyles. These are substances that degrade very slowly, which is why residues can still be found in soil, water and air after several years. This is the case with atrazine and DNOC, which have been banned since 2012 and 1999 respectively. These two pesticides were detected in 13 of the 20 people tested. Other toxic residues tracked down by the laboratory still include chemicals such as flame retardants and pesticides that have a harmful influence on the hormonal system. Not only can these substances reduce fertility or embryonic development, but they can also reinforce each other. This phenomenon, known as the "cocktail effect", was recently confirmed in a study on sperm at the German University of Münster. As the results show, a healthy lifestyle and appropriate choices can reduce exposure to pollutants somewhat. But it is nevertheless impossible to avoid them entirely. This is also the observation of Nathalie Chèvre, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Lausanne. "This is why we must try to reduce exposure as much as possible," she concludes. Consumers can do this where transparency allows them to choose safer products such as organic or paraben-free cosmetics. In other areas, on the other hand, it is up to the political world to intervene, the scientist believes. However, as with some of the Federal Council's positions, the precautionary principle is still a long way off. This is illustrated by the new Water Protection Ordinance, which provides for a massive increase in certain pesticide limits. After the many objections that were voiced in 2018, the revision is officially "still under way".

Method of analysis

The Laboratory toxSeek in Ennery (F) specialises in the analysis of human hair. Using two high-precision detection methods (liquid chromatography and mass spectrometer), the experts searched for 1800 organic pollutants as well as 46 metals and heavy metals. In the first category are hundreds of pesticides, plasticisers and cosmetic preservatives such as parabens and bisphenols. All are potentially endocrine disrupters, i.e. they have a negative effect on hormones. Some are carcinogenic. Experts have used hair strands of 3 cm from the root. This corresponds to the last three months of exposure to pollutants.

toxseek - kit de dépistage de polluants dans le cheveux

Sources of contamination and the limits of science

"No symptoms, no intoxication! And when there is intoxication, it's too late." The report falls, abruptly.

It is that of Marc Augsburger, head of the Toxicology Unit of the Centre universitaire romand de médecine légale. What must be understood behind the toxicologist's remark is in no way cynical. It is the lucidity, pragmatism and complexity of the science he expresses. "We know that these substances are not inert, that they are the cause of endocrine problems in particular. And that, by definition, these organic pollutants should not end up in the environment."

The problem: science today is simply not able to assess the impact of most of these products on humans.

The solution? To give oneself the means to carry out studies on each product and to determine precisely the chronic exposure limits up to which there is no danger. The work is colossal, but unavoidable. The introduction of the REACH system in 2007 is already a major step forward, since this European regulation requires manufacturers to prove the safety of the products they place on the market. While waiting for large-scale studies to emerge, tests such as the ones we have carried out still make it possible to identify a certain number of probable sources of toxicity and, in any case, demonstrate, if it were still necessary to do so, the need for the precautionary principle. "Good science in this area is common sense," concludes Marc Augsburger. Clearly, in the absence of precise answers on the dangers of each product, consumers are more than ever left to face their responsibility.

Action for subscribers

Would you also like to know what toxic residues are present in your body? Subscribers to Bon à Savoir are entitled to a discount until May 31 2019 from the toxSeek Laboratory. The following analyses are available.

• Integral: detection of 1800 organic pollutants as well as 46 metals and heavy metals. Subscriber price: 270fr. instead of 360fr.
• Organic: detection of 1800 organic pollutants (pesticides, bisphenols, parabens etc.). Subscriber price: 195fr. instead of 260fr.
• Metal: detection of 46 metals and heavy metals (mercury, magnesium etc.). Subscriber price: 85fr. instead of 120fr.

Organic pollutants cannot be detected in hair that has been bleached or permanently dyed.

The sample kits can be ordered from Bon à Savoir using the counterfoil on the right or directly from toxSeek on the internet: www.toxseek.ch with the special subscriber code: BAS2019.
Payment by credit card or bank transfer.
Once the sample has been taken, the hair samples are to be sent to Bon à Savoir who will forward them to the laboratory. The results will be sent to you by e-mail or, if requested, by post within approximately two weeks. If you wish, you can share them with us so that we can continue our investigation.

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To be returned to :
Bon à Savoir, Service des commandes, Rasude 2, case postale 240, 1001 Lausanne