The Environmental Epidemiology between science and ethics

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The last day of the ISEE Rome Conference (September 1st to the 3rd) opened with a plenary session with many contributions on methods and the ethical and scientific aims of this scientific discipline.

 Joel Schwarz, from Harvard University, discussed the statistical methods needed to improve reliability in identifying causal links in phenomena under study, while Roel Vermeulen of the University of Utrecht illustrated the new techniques used to trace exposure to polluting agents down to a molecular level. “This type of science is very young and soon it will be possible to identify any sign of environmental contamination on the human body. We could monitor all the intermediate steps leading to the onset of diseases, thus being able to identify more effective forms of prevention and to offer early treatment of diseases caused by the environment” said Vermeulen. Current use of ‘omics’ have already made it possible to identify the molecular signature of atmospheric pollution on the organism, for instance of tobacco smoke, nanomaterials or other pollutants. 

In the course of the day a series of sessions were devoted to the presentation of research projects that already use such methods to ascertain the damages of toxic materials such as arsenic, lead, coal, dioxin, asbestos, heavy metals and pesticides on humans, with a special focus on their effects during pregnancy and on young children. 

Other sessions were devoted to the protective effect of urban green areas, and of active and sustainable urban transport. Progress in these new areas will enable a more effective impact of environmental epidemiology on health policies, as in courts. 

The last presentation in the plenary session Shira Kramer (Epidemiology International Inc) told an audience of about one thousand researchers and students what the role of environmental epidemiology could be in trials where compensation for pollution was sought. Kramer is an epidemiologist who started to serve the US justice system in 1991 following the case of the parents of children who had developed neuroblastomas, a rare cancer of the nervous system. The case was held against a company that stored coal tar – a carcinogenic substance used in the production of gas – a few yards from a children’s playground. The captivating story of that legal case and of the many that saw Kramer as an expert witness, illustrate the public role for environmental epidemiology, helping us understand its limits and the difficulties science may encounter in the courtroom’s confrontational environment. Kramer highlighted the ethical mission and the responsibility environmental epidemiology had in defending public health against environmental threats. 

Philippe Grandjean, the Harvard epidemiologist who discovered mercury’s neurotoxic effects on the foetus and on children, also shared Kramer’s views, as he made clear on receiving John Goldsmith Award for Outstanding Contributions to Environmental Epidemiology.  Grandjean received the award on the first day of the conference: he highlighted the responsibility of epidemiologists to communicate and translate their finding so that the results can help exposed populations and inspire more cautious and protective policies.

A conclusive session was devoted to the case of glyphosate, the Monsanto pesticide currently being investigated by the European Union that has been the object of study by three international committees reaching differing conclusions. Such conclusions were not always transparent and suffered from conflicts of interest. 

The Dieselgate case was also discussed with a focus on the relationship between regulations and the ethics of the car industry referring to the evidence on pollution being concealed by the car industry. 

The conference was closed by a general overview on epidemiology by epidemiologist IARC’s (Lyon) Rodolfo Saracciemeritus scientist and by Manolis Kogevinas, ISEE President. 

ISEE conference website
Conference programme
Twitter account@ISEEroma2016

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