ANTHONY HAY: All right, well, thank you for coming, folks. You can see the title that I finally decided on. I've had five or six different iterations of titles. And really, I just wanted to get us focused on the idea of how we decide what's going to be allowed into our homes, what's going to be allowed into the products we use.
And I took the second line-- or came up with the second line just in response to one of the Wall Street Journal's articles on TSCA, how it was a toothless vehicle, really. That it doesn't have the teeth that's needed to be able to do it. And that doesn't mean that there's not highly qualified people at the EPA, well-meaning people at the EPA. But the legislation that's written in TSCA really binds EPA's hands and puts the burden of trying to provide a safe environment on the EPA rather than on the chemical manufacturers.
And so I really appreciated reading the GAO's suggestions for revision of TSCA. I think they make some really cogent points that I think, hopefully, will end up in whatever legislation that I'm not endorsing is going to arrive on our plate sometime soon. So I want to just sort of take a look here at a picture of the Deep Horizon well burning in 2010, AND ask you the question, why are you here?
Obviously, you were invited, but for those of us that are involved in environmental stuff or involved in science stuff, what got you interested? For me, seeing Deepwell Horizon burning, or seeing the images of it, and seeing the slick spread across the Gulf of Mexico reminded me why I first got passionate and interested in environmental chemicals and environmental protection. And it took me back to the 1990s, the Exxon Valdez.
So I came home after my freshman year in college, and there on the coffee table was this-- not actually this, but this issue of National Geographic. And you can see a bird covered in oil. And I thought, oh, there's got to be something we can do better, different ways of managing, different ways of dealing with the problems that we create for ourselves. And in this article was a small section on bioremediation.
So my own research interests rely or focused on biodegradation, using bugs to clean up problems. And although I ended up not focusing on oil pollutants and oil compounds for my own academic career and more on household goods-- pharmaceuticals, personal care products, what I call bugs on drugs. So we do bugs on drugs in my lab. And I'm just interested in understanding how they can both solve problems and how, in some cases, they might be involved in creating problems for the way that our bodies try to detoxify or deal with pollutants.
So we've got oil spills. We've got oil burning. This textbook recently crossed my desk. The editor sent a Molecules of Death. And just it conjures up these dire predictions that we're surrounded by chemicals that are problematic and that are going to kill us eventually. But really, that's not the case. And then the American Chemical Society is quick to remind us of that, that chemicals are an important part of everyday life.
And the reality is that most chemicals don't cause death. But we really need to be able to develop a sound scientific way of making sure that the molecules we are exposed to are not problematic. And so thinking back to the Exxon Valdez, I was going to share with you a picture of the Cuyahoga River burning in 1969. That really prompted the President's Council on the Environment to suggest the formation or the establishment of TSCA, which was eventually established in 1976.
So we came from this era when, before you were all born, where the world seemed like it was on fire. Rivers were burning. People were dying of cancer. And so TSCA was really written in that era where we focused on these endpoints of death, birth defects, and cancer. And that's really all it did.
And so one of my goals today is to convince you that, along with giving whatever new legislation arises teeth to enforce the law, is helping to make sure that it's guided by sound science and science that is up to the date. That there are vehicles within the legislation that allow for periodic review and revision so that we make sure that we're addressing the issues that are really before us. We no longer have rivers burning. The biggest problem in the Cuyahoga now is Asian carp migrating-- it's so clean that fish are living there.
So great, but there are other issues and there are other compounds. And so other endpoints, as toxicologists would say. And we want to be able to take advantage of our sound understanding of the principles that are involved in risk assessment.
I bring this up. This is actually a picture of kids that were born after their mothers had been exposed to thalidomide. So in the 1950s and '60s, thalidomide was administered widely in the UK, widely in Europe. And it was really just the efforts of one person, one woman, Dr. Frances Kelsey, who was working at the FDA who stood up and said, you know what, there's not enough data. I'm not going to approve this.
She wasn't looking for the spotlight. She was just doing her job. And the legislation that we have in place that protects our food and our drugs, or protects us from our drugs, really is a much better model for how we need to be thinking about protecting ourselves from environmental chemicals.
Here, one person, not a crusader, who just evaluated the science, realized there wasn't enough data to make a good decision, and saved, literally, thousands and thousands of children from this fate where they have shortened forelimbs. Those kids also went on to develop all sorts of congenital heart defects. And their average lifespan was 35 or 40 years.
So just this horrible story that was prevented in large measure in the United States because of the voice of one important, but rather nondescript, federal employee working on-- just doing her job. And actually, you can see her here standing in the circle as the updates to the Food and Drug Act were signed by President Kennedy. So just to recognize the true value that we have in developing sound regulatory systems that are science-based and that can offer us this measure of security, because that's what we want. The public wants to feel secure and they want to know that the government is doing its job as a watchdog to protect us.
So in order for that watchdog to really do its job, it needs to have teeth. It needs to be able to require information from chemical producers. It needs to be able to really be aiming its guidelines or the regulations that it promulgates at the most sensitive populations. Certainly, in this case, pregnant women, unborn fetuses were the most sensitive population. And that continues to be the case, whether it's environmental chemicals or drugs, the outcome is pretty much the same. The sensitive groups are pretty much the same in most cases.
So malformation, death, we don't see things that dramatic anymore. But we still-- as scientists, we know that there are important pathways that are being acted upon by many of these environmental chemicals. And as each succeeding generation of scientists goes on, we realize there's stuff we just didn't know about.
And I think this is a really important axiom that needs to be taken into account when we're thinking about how we empower the EPA. The EPA is only allowed to put restrictions on the new use of chemical when there is evidence of harm or there's evidence that there's a problem. And the absence of evidence does not mean that there is an evidence of an absence.
And so what I'm trying to say there is just because we don't have evidence that it does something wrong doesn't mean that it doesn't do something wrong. And so we need to really empower the EPA to be able to demand that evidence from the chemical suppliers. The EPA, in conjunction with the FDA and the National Toxicology Program, are doing a great job of trying to go back and start and to screen chemicals, so they have that authority already in a program called Tox21 that I'll speak briefly about. But it really should be, and in Europe is, the purview of the chemical suppliers.
And I think that's really a better model. It doesn't seem to be stymieing enterprise. And I think that's the big concern. We don't want to put an undue burden on enterprise. But no company wants to move forward in an uncertain regulatory climate. They don't want to have litigation pending years to come because they didn't know how safe their product was.
A classic example of this is DDT. And what you can't read here is "powerful insecticide, harmless to humans." And so while we have no evidence that DDT has actually caused a large number of poisonings, it's a compound that we're chronically exposed to and that has subtle effects. And it's really these subtle effects that we've learned about more in the last 30 years.
And that's one of the take home messages that I want to leave you, is that it's not death. It's not malformation. It's these subtle effects, things that affect the way children mature, the ages at which girls reach menarche. The sperm count. The effect on things like asthma. The effect on our immune systems.
I really like this title "Gender Benders at the Beach-- Endocrine Disruption in Marine Estuarine Systems." So this was written back in 2000, but it emphasizes the importance of these subtle effects that these gender vendors or these endocrine disruptors, which Motoko will speak more about later. These are compounds that have pretty subtle effects. They change sperm count or they change the ratio of males to females in a brood.
There's lots of different things that they do, but they don't kill. And the point here is that what doesn't kill you doesn't always make you stronger. There are lots of things, lots of chemical exposures that compromise us in ways that in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, we weren't even really testing-- immuno-development, for example.
We now realize that the endpoints that we haven't been looking at, the things we haven't looked for, they're what really is important. And one of those sad things in toxicology is you don't see what you don't look for. So you've got to go looking for things.
So said another way, we don't know what we don't know. That's an important thing to see. And here I just want to emphasize the idea that even though we've had legislation back to the 1970s, our understanding of how toxic compounds are and how those toxic outcomes manifest themselves has changed. We no longer are just looking for gross neurological deficits.
We now understand that things like IQ, attention deficit disorders, issues that are related to behavioral aspects of our lives are affected by environmental chemicals in ways we hadn't really considered before. And so you can just see this downward trend that as we learn more about the way these chemicals behave, the things they do in our bodies, we realize that in order to be protected, we have to keep lowering the standards.
And so the question is, have we reached a plateau here or is that going to continue to go down? So we need to empower the EPA to require information as we learn more about these types of scenarios, require that of the manufacturers. A great example of this is melamine.
So here, melamine was a big scare in mid-2000's. It ended up being added surreptitiously to baby food and other compounds that were trying to increase the protein content. And it ended up causing neurotoxicity-- sorry, not neurotoxicity, nephrotic toxicity, or kidney failure, in thousands and thousands of infants. One of the interesting things about this story is it didn't poison every child that was exposed. And this is one of the things we're just, again, in the last five years we're beginning to understand.
There had to be a certain set of preconditions existing in those kids in order for them to actually have those negative effects. And one of that-- and this just was published in 2013, a few months ago, was that the specific presence-- the presence of one specific type of organism, Klebsiella, a bacterium in the gut, is what's required to actually cause the toxicity. And since that bacterium only occurs in about less than 1% of the population, you have 99% of the population that's doing just fine.
But this emphasizes the need to understand the mechanism behind the toxicity so that we can decide how we protect those vulnerable populations. Moving forward in time, we're going to learn a lot more about the way that gut microbes-- and this is where some of my own interests lie at the moment-- the way gut microbes affect chronic diseases. We realize now that obesity and diabetes are chronic-- here we have a genetically obese mouse.
We know if we take the gut contents of this mouse and put them into a genetically lean mouse, that mouse gets fat, OK? So your gut microbe contents have an important controlling factor over all kinds of things that are related to metabolic syndrome, insulin dependence, the way our immune system develops, and the way we metabolize drugs. In this case, I've got a picture of an intestine there.
And this is actually an anti-cancer drug. But bugs or microbes in the guts of people exposed to this compound, or mice exposed to this compound, actually cause the toxicity. So sometimes, bugs are causing chronic disease. Sometimes they're activating pollutants and making them more toxic. And in many cases, they're not doing it. But as we increase our understanding of the way that toxic compounds have their effect on us, we need to be able to incorporate those advances into the way that testing is done by the EPA.
So this is just an article, a review we wrote, again, just trying to get at the point of the nexus between environmental chemicals, gut microorganisms, and obesity. That environmental chemicals are contributing to the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome in ways that we hadn't really considered before. And it's really at the crossroads of the gut microbe interaction and the environmental chemical interaction. Again, diabetes, obesity, not one of those things that is currently tested for when we think about protecting ourselves from environmental chemicals.
So just want to end on this idea here that a good legislation, or that the only way to protect the environment is to give our regulatory agencies the authority they need in order to be able to apply the law as it's crafted or as it's seen fit. Tox21, I mentioned earlier, is this program that's a collaboration between the National Toxicology Program, EPA, but it's really using cutting edge technology to develop high screening-- high throughput methods for looking for the unintended effects of environmental chemicals. And to me, it's a model system of what's being done right at the moment, but it needs to receive continued support and it needs to be built upon so that these findings can be incorporated into developing risk assessments that will be protective of human health and of environmental health.
So good teeth. In other words, the ability to enforce the law requires a good dental plan. It requires maintenance. It requires support. As we talk about revising TSCA, we can't forget that what we're going to be asking the EPA to do costs money. And that it requires financial support, or we're just going to have a loud dog with a bark and no bite. And that's really, I think, the message that I wanted to leave with you today. So be happy to take any questions, comments.
MOTOKO MUKAI: So my name is Motoko Mukai, and I'm an environmental and veterinary toxicologist. And for many years I've been studying the toxic effects of PCBs and dioxins, which are a few of the compounds that have been successfully regulated by TSCA. And I would like to talk about three main points today.
First of all, endocrine disrupting chemicals. Why do we need to be concerned about and what they are? And then second of all, how do we deal with the complex mixture problem? And then at the end, I would like to talk briefly about a clinical veterinary case that I had recently which is relevant for TSCA.
So endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, also known as endocrine disruptors, are chemical compounds that affect the endocrine system and hormones. So this is a diagram of major endocrine organs, such as reproductive system, and liver, thyroid gland, and other organs that are important in controlling the metabolic system, and parts of the brain that control these organs as well. So small amounts of endocrine hormones that are secreted, or peptides secreted from these organs, play an important role in our body.
And endocrine disrupting chemicals can also have effect at very low concentration. That is the problem. Just like the hormones, they can be effective at very low concentrations, even at the low parts per billion levels, or PPB. So PPB equals Parts Per Billion. And how low are we talking about?
So if you imagine a backyard pool, a drop of this chemical will cause parts per billion levels. And sometimes, endocrine disruptors can have an effect, even at parts per trillion, and which is 1,000 fold less than parts per billion. So even if the chemical compound is diluted, when it runs off into the environment and is diluted, because of this ability of these compounds to have effect at such low concentration, it is still of a problem.
So many wildlife in the environment, of course, affected because of this. Endocrine system is also shared among all these animals. They have the same endocrine organs and the function as humans do. And what makes it more problematic is that these compounds are oftentimes lipophilic, meaning they're persistent and they bioaccumulate in the fat of these animals. But they biomagnify, meaning the higher up the food chain the animals are, they have a heavier body burden, such as marine mammals and raptors are examples.
So endocrine disrupting chemicals can have subtle but very significant effects. For example, it can cause infertility, slow development. And many of these animals, for example, seasonal breeders, migratory birds, and hibernators change their metabolism and behavior between doing these different seasons. And endocrine disruptors can affect this.
As an example, researchers in the UK have studied a male starling. And they fed these starlings with environmental [INAUDIBLE] concentration of contaminants. And they show that the size of this brain region that controls the learning and the production of songs increased. And they had more complexity in their song. And interestingly enough, the females preferred the males that had complex songs. So that's one example.
AUDIENCE: Didn't they also have depleted immune systems?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Yes.
AUDIENCE: So not always a good thing.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Right. Not always a good thing. And another study, I think, that was done in American robins, they show a decrease in those sizes. So depending on the species. And maybe that's why starlings are doing so well in this world, you never know. But endocrine disrupting can even have effect on the ability to receive and respond to environment cues.
One of my previous studies using dioxin showed that dioxin has effect in the rodents to respond to light cues. So that's another example. And it can also lead to immune deficiency, which increases the risk of infectious diseases, for example.
So those are subtle but significant. And when we think about endocrine disruptor chemicals, are humans also getting subtle effect? And the answer is yes.
So these are examples of endocrine disrupting chemicals. PCBs have been banned, but we can still see it in old fluorescent bulbs in schools and households. Dioxin is also restricted, but we still are getting it from incineration as a byproduct. PBDEs, PBBs are fire retardants which are used commonly in household furniture, for example.
And studies have shown that toddlers and household cats have much higher levels of these fire retardants. And we think that's because they're low on the floor all the time, and they're inhaling higher levels of these chemicals through dust. And benzophenome, phthalates, BPA are endocrine disruptors that could be found in food products. Trichosan is an anti-microbial commonly used in soap, and sometimes in toothpaste as well. So we are exposed to complex mixture of endocrine disruptors.
So the second point I want to make-- yes, please.
AUDIENCE: On the fire retardant, they're often in carpets in rugs.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Yes.
AUDIENCE: Is that what you're referring to?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Yes. And any furniture.
AUDIENCE: Right. So it's deliberately put there for a purpose.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Yes, to retard the fire.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Yes.
ANTHONY HAY: The foam in our seats can be as much as 10% of these compounds. So it's a huge quantity.
MOTOKO MUKAI: Yeah. So the second point I want to make, we need to deal with the complex mixture. We are immersed in this cocktail mixture. The example that I gave previously is just a fraction of what we know about endocrine disrupting chemicals.
And there are, as we know, more than 84,000 chemicals that we use today. And average 700 more is added every year. So why is that a problem?
It's a problem because it makes it more difficult to set the safety limits. And this is what I mean. So if each compound is, even at very low concentration, if those effects have a similar effect, 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 could end up being a toxic level. That's called the additive effect. And also, it could act synergistically and result in more than additive effect. That's called the synergistic effect-- 1 plus 1 plus 1 plus 1 equals or greater than 4. So that's the problem we have.
So how do we deal with this complex mixture problem? We need more tools, toxicological tools. As you know, toxicological studies are very expensive. You need a lot of rodents and it's also time consuming.
So that's why scientists have-- like the Tox21, they started using cell culture models. So this is an example of a cell culture model. But it's not really enough to look at just the cell culture. There's only a limited amount of information you can get from treating the cells and looking at the effects. We still need full animal model.
But instead of using rodents, we can slowly go use smaller species, like the zebrafish embryo, for example, or some people use a frog embryo. And we can put it in these cell culture plates and screen for large amounts of toxic chemicals at one time. We still need to consider for species differences, because we're obviously not fish, but this is one of the options we have.
So in my laboratory, we're using the zebrafish embryos to look at toxic effects of endocrine disruptors and complex mixtures. So certainly, I would like to talk about this clinical case that I had. So two pigeon breeders from a different location were having this massive chick death in their colony. And they submitted this nesting pad.
And they were using the nested pad from the same source. They were purchased in a different store, but it was from a same company at that time. And it happened to be a recycled material, made out of recycled material.
And what they do, the female pigeons lay eggs on these nesting pads and it's supposed to provide protection and warmth to the eggs and also to the chicks. But the chicks were dying the day after it was laid. So we tested this nesting pad.
And what we found was the compound called toluene diisocyanate, TDI. TDI is used during the production of polyurethane foams, but also has other applications, such as adhesives, sealants, binders, and coatings. And it could be found in some of the household application purposes as well.
It is a sensitizer and it can cause asthma and lung damage. It has been classified as potential human carcinogen by World Health Organization. We don't really know what kind of toxicity it has to pigeons. We have very little data on toxicity to birds. So we are still investigating this case. If the birds died from TDI or not.
But we think that because it was made out of recycled fabric material, somehow this compound was tightly bound to this material. Good thing to note is that the usual polyurethane foams that we have in the household, they are assumed that they don't have TDI-- contain-- because this compound is so volatile, it volatilizes by the time it gets to consumers. So we don't need to be worried about that. But somehow, this recycled fabric, I think, was binding this compound tightly.
So what is the regulation on TDI? There is strict regulation by OSHA and ACGIH, which is the organization that protects occupational safety. So the workers are protected. But there is no regulation-- or consumers and self-employed employees are not necessarily protected by these regulations.
And it's not regulated by TSCA either. So these populations could be-- may not even have the knowledge of the toxicity at times. This is especially a concern for asthmatic patients, especially children who could be in the household when the applicators come in and spray this thing, or if the children come in right after it was sprayed.
So EPA is aware of the situation, that the TDI is in some of the consumer applications. And they are having an action plan. But it's still not regulated by TSCA, so that is a problem. So just to conclude, these are three main points I would like to make.
TSCA reform is necessary. It's outdated. We need to allow EPA to do its job to protect our health from these harmful chemicals. And there needs to be a potential response with a shift from EPA to the industry. Industry should be held more responsible to what kind of chemicals they use.
Not only that, but how they are used, and to make sure that toxic compounds, like the TDI, does not get to consumers if they use it for other applications. And we need the continued funding from the government for the development of new screening, safety testing, and to develop safer alternatives to these toxic chemicals. That's all I had.
MARGARET FREY: OK, so I'm going to represent maybe a different angle on this topic, because I'm not as involved with the direct testing in the environment. But I am involved with making new ways of testing for these substances. And you've heard Motoko and Anthony say that there's more and more things we need to test for, and we need to be able to test for small quantities of these things. And from maybe my point of view, it would be best if we could test for these things fast, if we could identify very small quantities and be sensitive, and also if it was easy.
So researchers have been working on this for a number of years, and not even only in the area of TSCA, because there's a lot of different realms where we need to be able to test for things rapidly and easily. So this is from the CDC website, and some little pictures that I added. Just in 2013, the kind of outbreaks we've had in food, with this latest one this antioxidant blend that's used in smoothies showing up with hepatitis A in the pomegranate seeds, E. coli in the pizza slices, and then this is the whole salmonella club along the bottom here.
And what always strikes me about this is that these are mainly things-- maybe not the pizza, frozen pizza things-- but mainly things that are supposed to be healthy for you to eat. And then instead, they're carrying some kind of disease factor in them. So to prevent this from causing major illnesses, and even death, among the population, we need to be able to respond rapidly and find out what's causing the human difficulties. And it has to be very sensitive. Then possibly even something that can be done before the food goes to market so it's not sent out with these things in it.
Apart from food, there's a lot of other current threats that are out there. And this is also from the Center for Disease Control and the US Geological Survey about other toxins that are showing up around us. One is new viruses, new influenza viruses, this new MERS virus that's showing up now. They say it has potential to cause pandemic.
They're still figuring out how this is transmitted. And one of the ways we can help to figure out what's going on and how that virus is moving is to be able to capture and identify very small amounts of it. And in this case, it's something new, right? So these viruses are constantly mutating. So we have to be able to identify something new.
And these other ones go back to exactly what Anthony and Motoko were talking about. This is the Cape Cod septic systems have been a big issue with pollution. And a lot of that pollution appears to be coming through the septic systems, and actually through things that go down people's drains or that come out of people's bodies. So even drugs that people are taking that aren't can completely metabolized, when they need to urinate, those end up in the septic system.
Things like shampoos, deodorants, soaps, just regular household things that we're using every day now going into the septic systems and causing what we're calling emerging pollutants. And these pollutants exist in very small amounts. But again, can be very dangerous to these most sensitive populations and to people who have some predisposition to being sensitive to these chemicals.
So if we've got emerging pollutants, we should have emerging solutions to this kind of problem as well. So this is what we've been thinking about and what we've been working on. We want something that is easy to use, inexpensive, fast, and even small as like a home pregnancy test.
So home pregnancy tests, pretty much anyone can walk into a drugstore and use it and find out if they're pregnant or not. What it's testing for in the sample there is very abundant and actually very easy to detect. So it has limited capabilities.
Then we have something like a medical testing lab, or Motoko's lab at Cornell. The people there are extensively trained in what to do. They can have very broad capabilities. They can test for a lot of different things, whether they're known or unknown.
It can be expensive. It can possibly take a long time. And it's big. You can't put it in your pocket.
What we're working on developing is [INAUDIBLE] microfluidic device, as an example. So this is something that's made using technology that's used to make computer chips. And now just kind of modified to be able to take, maybe, all the activities that are done in this lab and shrink them down to a very small platform on a chip there. So potentially, this could be easy to use.
They tend to have specific capabilities. They can test for much tougher things than the pregnancy test, but you can't necessarily be as flexible as you could with a huge lab. So they're designed more for specific things.
The results can be very fast. Currently, these can be expensive to produce because you need a cleanroom and some very specialized equipment. That's kind of where my research comes in. And again, these things can be very small.
OK, so what is the state of the art in this area? I call this research and reality. This thing up here is what the Center for Disease Control recommends for testing your pool water. We can get the little shaky thing.
This one's actually a miniature laboratory spectrophotometer that you can put your pool water sample into and it will measure for a lot of the pool chemicals-- chlorine, pH, and different acids and hardness in the water. What it's actually not testing for is the stuff in the water that could make you sick-- any bacteria in the water or microbes in the water that might be causing illness. So hopefully, if you've got your chlorine at the right level, you're killing all of those anyway.
Going a little bit further, this is a test kit that counts CD4 cells and is very, again, pretty small. So this-- how big? This is maybe like this big. So it's pretty small.
This is the sample holder over here. And they're saying it could be used anywhere, even in remote settings. So if you happen to be somewhere, sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, that you don't really have a medical lab available, this could start doing some good testing for you.
And then research-- and I picked this one, a couple of these, but this one in particular, because they've made a system that works with a cell phone camera. Right now, we're carrying a lot of technology and a lot of processing capability in our pockets with us all the time. And we could do more with it than play Angry Birds.
So in this case, they're using the camera as a reader to read this cell right here and detect toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses, and other molecules. And possibly, George Whitesides, who's up at Harvard, kind of threw down the gauntlet on where the edge of this challenge is. And he is saying that we should be able to make something like the Star Trek tricorder that can very-- I don't know if any of you guys are old enough to remember that thing. But that can basically just sort of wave in front of people and completely diagnose their health, and very sensitively, on a piece of paper.
So he calls the zero cost diagnostics, because if you have and 8 and 1/2 by 11 piece of paper, you could print out several hundred of these diagnostic devices and possibly diagnose diseases on them. So that's maybe the far reaching challenge, the boundary out there. And he's shown that he can, again, detect some things and do some tests on there as well.
So what my research lab does is we take a lot of these functions that are made in this cleanroom lab for the microfluidics devices, and we start making them on fibers instead. So we're eliminating the need for cleanroom kind of fabrication. This is me and a couple of my students making one of these devices in our laboratory.
The whole setup we have here cost a couple of thousand dollars and is really flexible and easy to use. Rather than making tiny gold features within the channels, we're doing this on fibers that are 100 times thinner than a human hair. And we can design the surfaces of these fibers to capture toxic substances, concentrate them, separate them from whatever impurities are surrounding them. So whether you're putting in blood or urine or chicken soup into the sample, you can get the E. coli that you're trying to detect at one point where you can easily detect it.
And this is a picture of one of our completed devices we made in the lab. This system that we make can be part of the detection system or it can also be used to deliver an ideal sample to other detection systems. So if we have a detection system that works on a cell phone camera or something like this, we can purify the sample, concentrate what needs to be detected, and put it there for that cell phone system to be able to detect.
So just to sum this up, we're talking about fast, easy, and inexpensive to use systems. There's sort of broad areas of people who are working on this, from people who do cell phone apps to Nobel laureates. And what we want to be able to do is test a broad range of diseases or identify toxic substances that are on surface, in water, or in food.
And these tiny fibers that I make can be part of this solution for these rapid, simple, low cost, point of needs diagnostics. Making these fibers is actually on the same cost level as George Whitesides' patches of paper. They can be used for purification and concentration of the samples.
It's fast and inexpensive. And again, these devices can be used in places where you don't have a lot of infrastructure and a lot of expertise, a lot of doctors, a lot of professors to work on things like this. So that's what I wanted to share with you this morning. I think we're all ready to take some questions now.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: If any of you have any questions-- I actually have one. Is it possible down the road to actually have clothing that can detect a way to-- of the toxins or poisons?
MARGARET FREY: Yeah, it is. When we talk about putting this into clothing, since I'm making these fibers hundreds of times thinner than a human hair, they're actually strong like ants. So they're strong for individual fibers, but they're so small that what load they're able to bear is really just a tiny amount. But we have shown that you can take these fibers, you can incorporate them with traditional fabrics. You can cut them and sew them with traditional fabrics in normal ways.
And they can be useful for a number of things. They could form good breathable barrier layers. So if there's toxic chemicals around you that you don't want to get in and actually touching your skin, they can filter those out. And we can incorporate detection into that as well. You'd want it to be in a small area so you'd know where to look.
AUDIENCE: How would you see the application of that? Just like-- what would people-- how could they use that?
MARGARET FREY: To have their clothing--
AUDIENCE: Not necessarily the clothing, but just these devices, what would you do? Just-- I don't know. Could you give me some examples of how it would actually--
ANTHONY HAY: I'm renovating a home right now, and you go down to Lowe's or Home Depot and you see lead test kits and mold test kits. And so any of those types of applications, the more the homeowners know, the more they are looking for places to get their soil tested. So I get calls weekly from people wanting to know where they can get x, y, or z tested. And so having low cost technology like that I think would satisfy that.
MARGARET FREY: So one of the things we're working on right now is a test for cholera. So cholera is a big scourge in places that don't have pure water systems. And if you identify it early enough, it's actually quite curable. But otherwise, it can kill people within 24 or 48 hours.
And then the sample that you need to test is like diarrhea. So in that case, we could use this kind of fiber system to take that really disgusting sample, purify out the one toxin that we need to identify, and present it for identification on a very small chip platform. So if you're in some place like Haiti after the last earthquake, or anywhere where there's been a natural disaster affecting the water systems, you can test people very rapidly and find out if they're ill. And then go through the maybe more expensive treatment process on the people that do need it.
Or potentially be able to test the water as well and find out if the water is pure before people start drinking it. Similar systems have been built for dengue virus. Apparently, there's four different variants. Yeah, if I can count them up. And you only get each one once.
So once you've had one, you're immune to that one going forward, but you can still get the other three. So it's actually important to differentiate between those. And this is a big thing in Africa where it's difficult. And again, you can't go have a blood test and send it off to a lab like maybe we would, because the lab isn't there. Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Can you also use it to concentrate a sample?
MARGARET FREY: Yes. So we've shown with some of our fiber systems in our lab tests that we can concentrate E. coli by a factor of 20,000 from what we input to what's captured on the fibers. And since you want to be able to detect-- you hopefully don't have 20,000 there. You have just a few, but you need to gather all of them so you can detect them, because just one or two can actually make people sick. So it's a really good thing.
MOTOKO MUKAI: That would be really useful for toxic chemicals as well, because a lot of chemicals, like the endocrine disruptors, they're at very low levels. And so detection limit of these analytical techniques is always a problem. So we're looking for ways to concentrate down the sample over time. So fabric could be a great way.
MARGARET FREY: Yeah, we'll talk.
AUDIENCE: You talked about-- I guess the first two presentations talked about the need for TSCA reform and then how the current law doesn't have teeth to meet the modern needs. Have you looked at all about the proposals that are out there, and whether that would be sufficient? Or do you have any thoughts about what that could do? I mean, that's what you want, are we getting there?
ANTHONY HAY: So I think there are definitely improvements. And again, the GAO testimony that was delivered to Congress really hits the nail on the head, putting the onus onto the companies when they're developing new products. I mean, this isn't something that individual chemical companies necessarily need to do, but it can be done on behalf of them by things like ACS, so that you have trade organizations that work to make sure that chemicals are being tested.
And then changes like addressing chemicals that are going to market rather than necessarily chemicals that are just being developed for new use. So one way of protecting the public is by reducing exposure. You can do that by just making sure that these compounds, even though they may be used experimentally, they're not getting out to the public.
So I think there's a number of good steps going forward in the proposals that are out there. And I know that not everybody is happy, so that's usually a good sign.
AUDIENCE: Earlier when you-- quick question. Earlier when you talked about bugs that actually, literally, are digesting toxins, years ago they talked about dredging the Hudson River for all the--
ANTHONY HAY: PCBs, yeah.
AUDIENCE: And I think they felt it was better to leave it. But then Onondaga Lake in upstate New York, which was one of the most polluted, actually, they're digging this stuff out. And now they can't find anyone who will take it.
ANTHONY HAY: Yeah. They're a big problem. So with Onondaga, they're capping some of it and they're dredging some of it. And so it's like having mercury removed from your teeth. There are these times when intervention actually increases exposure.
And so this is why the EPA is in a tough position sometimes to come up with the remedy that is the most protective in the long term of human and environmental health. And it's not always a cut and dry answer. So the EPA has negotiated-- in the case of Onondaga, has negotiated with folks. Some of the Hudson River sediments have been dredged, some have been left. And so there isn't a one size fits all. And that's why having a well-staffed regulatory body is really important.
AUDIENCE: It's an interesting question. Even on a small scale, what do you do when, say, a car salvage yard closes up shop and it's been dripping oil and transmission fluid for 30 years?
ANTHONY HAY: Yeah. So those clean up technologies, they need to be funded as well. So disposal. So whether it's incineration or whether it's some sort of passive remediation, like microbial, biodegradation, something like that. But unfortunately, as Motoko was pointing out, these things aren't usually just one compound alone. They're in mixtures. And so dealing with the mixtures is a real difficult problem.
AUDIENCE: And that goes to my question. I think everyone, at least in the environmental community, talks about aggregate exposures and how we can't really test mechanical thinking, OK, this is the one thing you're going to touch today and that's the only thing that's going to have that chemical in it. But how do you go about doing that, because each person has a variety of exposures, and as you age, those exposures change? So is there a method to test all of that or is there one in development to be able to do something to get [INAUDIBLE]?
MOTOKO MUKAI: That's a very good question, an interesting one, and we need to get at that question eventually. But there's no-- in terms of what that particular person is exposed to, it's going to be really difficult to do. Do you test for the compounds in the serum, or do you look at the activity of some enzyme that these endocrine disrupting chemicals are known to interrupt?
So there's not a really good answer to that right now. But in terms of testing what maybe 10 different compounds can do together, we can use those high throughput screening tools, like the zebrafish embryos, or the frog embryos, or even the cell culture models and screen for those compounds. And another thing in my research lab we're trying to do is when we do have those complex mixture problems, why don't we go from that situation and then treat these embryos with that mixture and see if there's any response, evidence of toxic effects. And then go from there. And fractionate into different components and see what the culprit chemicals are.
And it could be just one. It could be five chemicals. So we are beginning to look at, to kind of go through these complex mixture problems, but we're not there yet.
AUDIENCE: There's no way to regulate that, though? And there's nothing that could be put into legislation in order to make sure that things are tested in mixtures because the technology is just not there?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Right.
ANTHONY HAY: The high throughput system certainly can allow you to look at it. Because it's the question of combinations and permutations, right? How many different combinations are possible?
And so we're getting there with the high throughput technology, but it's not-- as Motoko pointed out, you still need to do whole animal studies. And so it's going to be a long time coming before we have reliable systems that are predictive of human response.
MOTOKO MUKAI: But in the future, maybe we should require industry, if there's a runoff problem, to test that, if that complex mixture is not toxic in the mixture. Maybe we can start requiring industry to do that, but that's far into the future. We're not there yet.
AUDIENCE: That goes to having the ability to change legislation in years to come, right?
MOTOKO MUKAI: Right.
ANTHONY HAY: And this is where I think empowering the EPA to make good science-based decisions without relying on legislators to revise the law. I think if you empower the EPA to make-- so we're talking two different things. There's legislative law and then there's regulatory law.
And the regulatory law is set by the EPA. And giving that regulatory law more teeth, or giving the EPA greater power to establish rules that are science-based and make sense, while still considering the economic out-- we're certainly not trying to shut down industry. But we need to make sure that in industry's best interest and in the public's interest that we're giving the EPA power to make regulatory law that is protective.
One of the things that's going to be interesting in the coming 5 to 10 years is as our genomes are sequenced, it's not just the question of mixtures, but it's the question of idiosyncratic responses from different individuals. We learned that-- I know I got my genome done a couple months ago, and I'm a high caffeine metabolizer. I'm very sensitive to warfarin, because of one genetic mutation that I have.
So those same sort of mutations affect the way people respond to pollutants as well. And so as we get into this era of genomic medicine and then you layer-- another layer on top that is the differences between our gut contents. So there's those two additional factors that are going to affect the way we respond to individual compounds, but also to mixtures.
AUDIENCE: The point you mentioned about wanting to give EPA more power, more regulatory power, so we don't have to go back to Congress to revise the basic statutes every time, is that being done? Or who would do that? How does that come about and how do you work towards that?
ANTHONY HAY: So yes, there are proposals out there that would do that. One of them is, for example, by putting more onus on companies. If you look at the asbestos legislation, you can see what a huge hurdle the EPA has to overcome in order to provide, by definition of the law, what is reasonable evidence. And so part of it is just changing the definition of the law.
And so if the law is rewritten so that the EPA isn't forced to have incontrovertible evidence, but certainly has reasonable evidence, then that also makes its job easier. The EPA's ruling on asbestos was vacated by the court, even though there's-- I don't think there's anyone in the scientific community that thinks that asbestosis is a good idea.
AUDIENCE: We've run a little work over time, but if any of you-- well, thank you for coming. If any of you have any questions, you have my card and I'll put you in touch with any of the professors. Tom.
TOM: Yeah, I just wanted to point a little fact out here that you have three eminent faculty members from three colleges-- Vet School, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the College of Human Ecology. There's a lot of-- this is kind of what goes on at Cornell. There's a lot of collaboration that happens between the colleges.
And I think the Center for a Sustainable Future, the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, is just a name and [INAUDIBLE] hold onto in your head, because they do a lot of work to bring 300 or so faculty from all kinds of disciplines across the campus to look at these things in an interdisciplinary fashion. And this is just something that [INAUDIBLE].
ANTHONY HAY: That's true. I mean, actually one of Margaret's colleagues and I had a grant from them to use Biochar to produce protective fabrics. You're asking, what would you do with stuff like this, but the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future give us seed money to get a project started that way. So it's been a really great way of helping people make connections.
MOTOKO MUKAI: My zebrafish embryo work is also supported by Atkinson Center.
TOM: The point is that you just-- the world has gotten awfully complex that we live in, so you have to have people come from very different disciplines looking at the same problem. And so this is part of the message, I think, that people need to remember is that, from my perspective, I used to spend a lot of time in Washington and on Capitol Hill. The thing is to allow the regulatory bodies and the agencies to get on with their business and pulling all these people together to start dealing with issues that the American public really wants us to deal with.
Somebody mentioned 1% of the population-- just to give you a scale. 1% of the population is over 3 million people. So if you affect 1% of the population, you're affecting 3 million people. So these things have real consequences.
ANTHONY HAY: The 1% we care about.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, thank you so much.
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Three top Cornell University researchers discussed links between chemicals in household consumer products, quality of life and outdated regulations at an Inside Cornell journalist-only lunch, June 18, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Researchers Margaret Frey, Human Ecology; Anthony Hay, Microbiology, CALS; and Motoko Mukai, Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, discussed how the field of toxicology has advanced since the Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976; how chemicals, endocrine disruptors, and chemical interactions are having subtle impacts on our quality of life; and the need to enact science-based law to limit chemical exposure in the environment.
About Inside Cornell: This event is part of a series held in New York City and Washington, D.C. featuring high-interest experts working at Cornell University. The free, catered lunch sessions are on-the-record, and media members are welcome to record video and audio as desired.