Author: Ana Herceg, 23. March 2023 for Poslovni dnevnik
Ivana Vinković Vrček, consultant at the Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health about the problem of exposure of the human body to complex mixtures of different chemicals, toxins, materials and micro and nanoplastic particles, but also about the great success of her team in the design of nanoformulation of drugs for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.
Ivana Vinković Vrček, scientific advisor at the Institute for Medical Research and Occupational Health in Zagreb, is a pioneer in research into the safety assessment of new materials and nanomaterials in Croatia. Her research work on the development of new approaches to regulatory-oriented testing of the effectiveness and safety of chemicals and materials enabled her to play a leading role in projects funded by the European programs Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe.
She is an extremely active mentor to young scientists, so she currently supervises nine doctoral students and three postdoctoral students, and her exceptional success in managing projects and mentoring doctoral theses is also visible through publication in renowned journals and the engagement of young researchers. Ivana participates as a volunteer in the work of expert councils and commissions – Thematic Innovation Council for Health and Quality of Life and the Program Committee for Nanotechnology of the European Food Safety Agency.
Climate change caused by pollution and the filling of our planet with plastic are among the most current topics today. The fact is that only a very small percentage of plastic can be recycled, so we will never actually be able to get rid of it. But it turns out that the fact that it is around us is a smaller problem, and the fact that she has become a part of us is much bigger. What do we inhale, what do we drink, what do we eat, that is, what do we put into the body and what poses the greatest danger?
The exposure of a person during his life is an extremely demanding problem from the aspect of risk assessment, because we are exposed to complex mixtures of different chemicals, toxins, materials, including, among others, particles of micro and nanoplastics. Therefore, one of the main goals of the European Union (EU) strategy for a sustainable climate-neutral and circular economy is to protect human health and the environment by addressing pollution from all sources, as stated by the European Green Deal program.
Current EU legislation does not provide a comprehensive and integrated risk assessment of the combined effects of different chemicals and materials taking into account different routes of exposure, while the regulatory requirements for mixtures have not changed significantly since 2012 despite being a research priority since 2001.
The problem is further compounded by plastic all around us. Plastic is a central material for modern life because it is a multi-purpose, resistant, easy to process and affordable material. Despite this, its use has become a problem due to the increasing pollution of the environment with plastic. In addition, plastic in the environment is subject to slow photo-, chemical, physical and biological degradation and fragmentation into micro- and nano-particles.
Chronic human exposure to plastic is already a health problem – from nanoplastics in cosmetics and synthetic fibers in clothing to plastic particles in water and air. We interact with plastic without fully understanding what it means for our planet, much less for our own bodies. Understanding plastics, their additives and how they interact with our bodies is now more critical than ever. Analysis of human feces has shown that micro-sized plastic particles can be excreted through the gastrointestinal tract.
Plastic particles have also been detected in human colectomy samples, human blood and human placental tissue. Considering the specific physico-chemical properties and reactivity of materials on the nanoscale, plastic micro/nanoparticles can adsorb and accumulate toxic chemicals from the environment, acting as a “Trojan horse” for hazardous substances, thus further complicating the risk assessment that needs to take into account the effects, action and toxicity of complex, complex mixtures.
With the aim of minimizing the possible harmful effect of economic activities on the ecosystem, the EU has launched a series of plans and programs, including the 8th Environment Action Programme, the Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment, the EU Strategy on Chemicals for sustainability towards a toxin-free environment, the Resolution towards an EU Comprehensive Framework on Endocrine Disruptors (2019/2683(RSP)), the Commission’s Communication on Endocrine Disruptors and the Biodiversity Strategy.
If the environment is so contaminated with microplastics and nanoplastics and the composition of the land, air and water has changed so much, is it even possible to grow an animal somewhere in the world or produce food that is ecological, 100 percent clean and healthy?
This is a difficult question and it is not possible to give a simple and unequivocal answer. However, it should be taken into account that every human activity, both in the past and now, is also the cause of public health problems.
For example, cooking food on open fires in the past represented an extreme danger to human health, despite the fact that food may have been richer in macronutrients and micronutrients. Since the problem today is the excessive production of exhaust gases on the roads, it should be taken into account that the former heating with fossil fuels also polluted the atmosphere, that is, the air we breathe.
I would say that it is not possible to live in a health-free environment, because every development of the economy and the implementation of human activities implies changing the environment and the conditions in which we live.
However, the key question is what and what the cost of development is. Therefore, the main idea of the European strategy on chemicals for sustainability towards a toxin-free environment is to promote sustainable development that includes concern for human health. It should be kept in mind that everyday human activities should also be modified in the direction of sustainability.
Therefore, EU legislation is moving in the direction of banning the use of single-use plastic products. For example, it is completely unsustainable to buy coffee in a disposable plastic cup, mix it with a disposable plastic spoon and then, after drinking the coffee, throw it all in the trash.
At the same time, it should be noted that a huge amount of such waste really ends up in a landfill, and does not go through the circular economy. I am afraid that the problems with plastic will not be solved without legislative decrees and bans. By nature, people are prone to conformism and comfortable behavior. Thus, most people would rather buy a drink in a single-use plastic packaging, which they will throw away after consuming the drink, than to buy the same drink in a returnable glass packaging.
How does all this ultimately affect the human body? And what do we pass on to new generations?
The problem with plastic escalated precisely because of the lack of restrictions, regulations and neglect of the fact that people are comfortable and lazy by nature. The price will be paid by the new generations, and the problem is already evident in the increase in the incidence of diseases and disease states that we did not know before, such as autoimmune diseases and infertility.
American scientist Dr. Shanna Swan (professor of ecology and public health at one of the most prestigious American medical schools, the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York) claims that this especially affects our ability to reproduce. Her terrifying research shows that in the past 70 years, since the increased production of plastic and PVC, the number of sperm in men has drastically decreased, and if it continues to decrease at the same pace until 2050, that number will be zero! Further, in the American Center for Disease Control, she came across research that found high levels of phthalates in the urine of pregnant women and reduced levels of testosterone in the male children they gave birth to. What is your view of the future, will plastic really exterminate us in the end?
Again, I have to admit that it is difficult for me to give a simple answer to that question. All the information you provided is correct. My research group is also intensively dealing with the problem of human exposure to complex mixtures with nanoplastics that can have a negative effect on our endocrine system.
For example, we discovered that non-toxic concentrations of drugs, preservatives and additives are very toxic and disturb the hormonal balance when human cells are exposed to mixtures of these non-toxic concentrations, and especially when nanoplastics are introduced into the mixture. This actually means that the paradigm of classical toxicology is completely changing and that it is no longer reasonable to examine the effects of a single chemical or material, but it is necessary to apply a holistic approach and investigate the effects of complex mixtures.
And what now? Can we change anything anymore? How much sense do all these green and sustainable policies that governments and all big business players who care about reputation and consumers have? And what influence can we as individuals have?
All the research and all the ingenious scientific results are completely useless if man himself does not change his behavior. If each individual does not stop behaving unreasonably and, dare I say it, arrogantly. For example, why is it necessary to change the wardrobe every year, why do we have to buy products packed in 5 types of packaging, why is it necessary to change the car every 5 years, why is it necessary to go to work by private car and not by public transport or, if at all possible, by bike or on foot… I can go on and on. Our behavior must be reasonable at every level and in every occasion, both at home, in the workplace and on the street. Considering that it is difficult to expect that people will radically change their behavior patterns on their own, this should be imposed on them not only by decrees, laws and prohibitions, but the state apparatus should also engage experts in shaping public opinion who would design and organize actions and promotions of the so-called conscientious and socially responsible behavior.
What is your research group currently working on?
I lead an exceptional multidisciplinary research team in which young, talented people of different profiles work, from chemists, chemical technologists, biologists, biochemists, pharmacists and all the way to doctors.
We are currently active on 4 large projects in the field of nanomedicine and risk assessment, which are financed as part of the Horizon program of the European Union and the European Social Fund.
One of our biggest current achievements is the success of our idea to design nanoformulation drugs for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.
The results of our research showed that design based on biogenic components is more effective and represents a real innovation.