This morning I read an article about how Pepsi and Coca-Cola are changing their formulas to avoid having to bear a cancer warning label due to exceeding an allotted carcinogen level as a result of a new California law. The chemical in question is 4-methylimidazole which contributes to the caramel coloring. This article prompted me to wonder how many consumers consider how our governments try to keep us safe from everyday chemical exposure as well as exactly how many chemicals we are exposed to? In the scientific process of determining a safe level of a chemical or product that chemical or product is the only item being tested in a replicated method to determine that a large enough population experiences a safe outcome (population in the sense of the size of a data set that stands up with statistical rigor to be representative of a larger population of consumers).
For example in testing chemical X, people or animals are each a datum (singular of data) and tested on so that hypothetically 800 subjects are considered a population to be studied that can be considered indicative of the real-world population of consumers who will come in contact with chemical X. Regulations are set to whatever is a high enough concentration so that each datum (subject) will not get sick.
This would be fine if chemical X was the only chemical we came in contact with in the real world but the reality is that we come in contact with many different chemicals. See A Wake Up Story by Healthy Child for a brilliant illustration of what we encounter everyday.
This is where we as consumers need to be aware of synergistic effects – these are effects when a multitude of factors interact with each other. With the case of the chemicals we come in contact with it would be impossible to effectively study thus regulate how your conditioner interacts with transportation exhaust for the duration of your commute with the caramel coloring in your soda with the chemicals used to treat the new carpet in your dining room with the antibacterial spray you used on your kitchen counter with the formaldehyde on the new blouse you just bought with you having a seasonal cold with an infinite number of other products and combinations.
In studying these types of scenarios a researcher would need to be very specific with dosage of chemicals, duration of exposure, and then add in variables like stress, diet, rest, hydration, sunlight exposure and once again an infinite number of possibilities that could be replicated and rigorously tested to be conclusive for consumers and regulation of big business. It is impossible not to mention cost-prohibitive to conduct these kinds of studies.
In other models where populations are affected by synergistic affects a stressed population can be negatively affected by a variable that had been present for a long time, but became harmful when the body was pushed to too many limits. An example is global amphibian declines where fungi has been shown to be present in populations for decades but then declines occur when other variables are exacerbated like temperature or loss of pristine habitat. We lost the Golden Toad in the cloud forests of Monteverde in the mid-1980’s thanks to this kind of scenario.
The truth is that science is not all-knowing and is not able to pinpoint exact factors of what makes humans or frogs healthy. What science is doing now is trying to learn as much as possible since human and other animal environments are becoming more stressed. As humans we have our precious ability to reason to learn about the potential of chemical and stress combinations as well as reduce them. If this is your first time learning about the term synergistic effects then thank you for letting me introduce it to you. Keep learning and then do what you can with your lifestyle to reduce chemical exposure and other stressors.