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He is one of the most cited Spanish scientists. His studies on the effects of environmental pollution on health are international benchmarks.
He alerted to the presence of bisphenol A in the lining of tin cans, children's dental sealants, shopping tickets and baby socks. Faced with the criticism of those who consider him alarmist, he is blunt: "They are not the scientific community, they are fans who think how they could do it about football or politics."
Nicolas Olea(Granada, 1954) would fit well in one of the typical Hollywood roles: the scientist who warns of risks that power despises, until what happens happens.
In this case, the warning is about the increase in diseases such as breast cancer, hyperactivity, diabetes, obesity and infertility –among others–, due to exposure to compounds such as bisphenol A (BPA) or parabens, present in food, clothing, furniture, toys, cosmetics ... Today the association between exposure and effect is considered proven; the causal relationship does not, but the evidence in its favor gives “enough to fill the Atocha station,” says Olea, sitting in the garden of that same station.
“In diseases involving many environmental factors it is very difficult to prove a single cause. What are you waiting for, to get 'bisphenolitis'? It will not give you, what you will have are the usual diseases, more frequent, which is just what we see, "he says.
Olea, former director of the Biosanitary Research Institute of Granada, coordinator of a multidisciplinary group of clinicians and researchers, is among the most cited Spanish scientists –H index of 59, for connoisseurs–.
He co-directs a European project to measure environmental exposure to pollutants. In the nineties his group warned that the lining of tin cans loose bisphenol A, and also dental sealants - which are used in children. More recently, they have detected this compound in shopping tickets and socks, which affects two risk groups: cashiers, “women of childbearing age who handle meters of the ticket paper,” says Olea; and babies, who suck their feet.
There are members of the scientific community who consider him an alarmist.
No, no, I don't go in there. The scientific community is the one that evaluates me and the one that gives me projects, others are people who have opinions. The evaluation is made by my peers, scientists of the same category who until now have decided to grant me funding, then they consider my work necessary. The others are not the scientific community, they are fans who think how they could do it about football or politics.
Maybe it's your way of presenting your results to the public.
I try to tell my results as clearly as possible. I take the time to explain my work to whoever asks. They are worried? Reason there.
An increase of 2.4% in breast cancer in Granada from 1984 to 2016 [here the data], an increase in hypothyroidism, obesity, diabetes, endometriosis, infertility ... All this without explanation, without more reason than modern life, it is more than worrying. One in three Spanish men who reaches 72 years of age will be diagnosed with cancer and one in four women.
The increased incidence of cancer is often attributed to aging.
As we age, it cannot be because breast cancer is increasing 4.6% annually in Granada in women under 49 years of age. Let's see, here's one thing. I am a doctor and I speak of illness. What are engineers and biologists doing talking about disease? They deal with mechanisms, with mice, with cells, or with antennas and telephones, but not with disease.
It cannot be that an engineer of a commercial telephone company speaks of risks. If I have been a doctor for 42 years, ask me about illness, not someone who is dedicated to mechanistic knowledge. Ask the one who has a pediatric consultation about the disease and sees the increase in precocious puberty. And to oncologists, who do not explain why there is more and more breast cancer in young people.
Is there evidence that the increase in these diseases is associated with environmental toxins?
Evidence? Like to fill the Atocha station. It's all posted. I tell Brussels: I don't want more money to do the same, we have plenty of evidence to act preventively. I don't want any more funding.
Are you referring to the European project you are working on now?
It's called HBM4EU. € 75 million, 28 countries, to describe exposure levels for the umpteenth time. Let's take action! I tell you what we are going to find: statistical association and great demonstration of the exhibition. There is no more association for complex diseases like breast cancer. I cannot solve the great unknowns of breast cancer in two years. What we have is environmental evidence of factors that are preventable.
Isn't the increase in breast cancer due to fewer children?
Already. The books say: "The transformation of breast tissue during early pregnancy protects ...". It has been repeated for 40 years and nobody knows what it means. We say: every pregnancy and lactation clean the accumulated filth. After five pregnancies you are clean of toxins, and your risk of breast cancer goes down. You pass them on to your son, but that's something else.
And the role of diet?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) launched a study on diet and cancer, EPIC, in which it followed half a million Europeans, 40,000 Spaniards, for 20 years. The result is recommendations that nobody wants to hear: stop eating red meat, eat vegetables and legumes, eat more fruit ... And there are still those who say there is no evidence!
I mean, there's enough evidence to ban things like… what?
Like bisphenol A. It is an endocrine disruptor [it acts in the body like a hormone] and the evidence of its toxicity is absolutely overwhelming.
Why is it not prohibited?
Ask them. You would have to read the anger that the European Parliament threw the European Commission last April for not taking tougher measures against endocrine disruptors, for not bringing into regulation the knowledge generated and paid for by Europe over the past decades. I am sending you the document.
How can environmental exposure be reduced?
There are precedents: DDT was phased out. It can be done, but you have to have conviction. With regard to bisphenol-A, the EU abolished polycarbonate bottles, and in 2018 regulated the coating of tin cans for children under three years of age - twenty years after we detected it! - and next January it will abolish food tickets. box… You can do a lot. Of course, apply all the ordinances that arrive from Europe, quickly. And you can also act independently. There is no reason to wait for Europe.
Nothing is done about dental sealants?
No alternative found. Dentists say that it is very little, that nothing happens. But it is that in endocrine disruptors there is no safe dose, the safe dose is the one that does not exist.
You started researching cancer. How did you get to endocrine disruptors?
I went postdoc to Boston to study breast and prostate cancer. I arrived with my child and my pregnant wife, with 250 blood samples from patients to do a hormonal activity test. The samples were in plastic tubes and gave high estrogenic activity, so much so that I thought I had contaminated them; a disaster. Until we found out that the plastic in those tubes was very estrogenic. I thought about the impact of the exposure of such a material on a pregnant woman. It was in 1988, it changed my life. I told my boss, Carlos Sonnenschein, that I wanted to dedicate myself to endocrine disruptors, it seemed more important to me to try to avoid diseases than to explain how they occur.
Is there now more awareness among physicians regarding environmental pollutants?
Pediatricians should ask about environmental factors in their consultations to identify risk factors: parents' work, a lot of traffic in the neighborhood, a factory nearby ... Few do.
You measure human exposure. What have they found?
We started in the nineties measuring exposure to cans, dental fillings, manufactured products, pesticides… We were told that exposure was very unlikely to occur because the body is very smart and eliminates these compounds immediately. And we said, well, we are going to measure vulnerable population. We got the 3,600 placentas from the Childhood and Environment Study (INMA), with the urine of the children and the milk of the mothers. Then we analyze adipose tissue from people operated on in the hospital, and seminal quality.
When we published results we were told that it was normal for there to be 4.2 nanograms per milliliter of bisphenol A in the urine of Spanish children. And we said: we cannot accept that urinating plastic is normal. I repeat: is that the price of modern life?
By Monica Salomone