The term “exposome” has been percolating in scientific circles more with each passing year, but don’t be surprised to start seeing it mentioned in popular media, too.
The Exposome Defined
What exactly is the exposome? There have been depths and levels of interpretations since the originator of the term, Christopher Paul Wild, through his lens of genomics and epidemiology said in 2005: “At its most complete, the exposome encompasses life-course environmental exposures (including lifestyle factors), from the prenatal period onwards.” The esteemed journal Science, went bigger and summarized the exposome under the headline of “…the intersection of chemistry and biology” as:
The “exposome” concept strives to capture the diversity and range of exposures to synthetic chemicals, dietary constituents, psychosocial stressors, and physical factors, as well as their corresponding biological responses.
Some would also add corresponding “genomic” responses to the definition above.
The Exposome in the Era of COVID-19
In the world of consumer products the “exposome” has been gaining traction and is being applied more frequently as a shorthand for the effect of products, from cosmetics to cleaning supplies, on human health and wellness. The Toxin Target Database is even changing its name to the Toxic Exposome Database while the exposome now has its own Twitter account (Human Exposome Project), as well as a corresponding website that takes an in-depth look at the challenges and complexities of exposome research and investigation.
While CPG companies were already investing in the sustainability and natural ingredient trends driving so many of their market verticals, the intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated their focus. Consumers’ awareness of what they are breathing and touching has never been greater than it is at this moment. The 6-foot (or 2-meter) social-distancing buffer has now been firmly, perhaps even permanently, ingrained in individuals’ consciousness, alongside what that buffer may or may not contain, COVID-related or otherwise.
What comprises the human exposome?
The substances landing on our skin, entering our lungs, accumulating in our tissues, healthy or not -- this is what the exposome comprises. The mind boggles at what may be floating in the exposome “cloud” surrounding us within the prescribed 6 feet of social distance. Most of these particles go completely unnoticed -- flame retardants in mattresses; fragrances in fabric softeners; off-gassing glue from car carpeting; BPA on receipts from ATMs; viral, bacterial, and fungal spores -- all imbued within this inescapable bubble.
Fortunately, Mother Nature has endowed humans with many forms of natural protection, from our skin to our immune system. Unfortunately, modern living has finally overwhelmed even Mother Nature’s defenses in many cases. Out there lurk countless compounds that our bodies weren’t designed to block or metabolize in an effective way. And some of the worst, like dioxins, accumulate in our bodies with half-lives of 7-10 years. Such genomic disruptors take years, like a slow vapor deposition machine, to bioaccumulate to the tipping point. Which ATM receipt will cross our limit? Which coat of paint? Which exposure will trigger the mutation that results in cancer? What else is out there?
Understanding the Exposome’s Impact on Human Health and Wellness
Well, as it turns out, there is quite a lot out there. Organic chemistry itself is fewer than 200 years old, so we really have little understanding of the long-term impact of man-made chemicals on the genetic code.
Worse, some of the most potentially dangerous substances have been (and continue to be) buried as waste -- such as plastics -- which then slowly make their way into the food chain, ultimately ending up in our bodies via contaminated water, plants, and animals. This makes measuring our exposure incredibly difficult, and wearing a mass spectrometry machine around our necks to sample our air, water and food all day isn’t quite feasible.
Shining a brighter spotlight on the exposome via popular media is a simpler first step, so that more people may begin to better understand its impact on their health, and start avoiding products that are most likely to cause them and (and their current or future offspring) harm. This includes having necessary, transparent, and inclusive discussions regarding the impact of various chemicals -- whether fragrance, flavor, fungus or flame retardant -- on the human exposome and therefore, human health and wellness.