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OSU toxicologist receives $7 million to study biological impacts of chemicals

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Robyn Tanguay, a toxicologist and professor at Oregon State University, will study the biological impacts of chemicals, thanks to an eight-year $7 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Most grants the institute gives out are for five years or under, but Tanguay received the longest award amount possible. It’s only given to scientists who have an impressive enough track record to show their longstanding contribution to science.

The study, which Tanguay will conduct with about ten other researchers, could potentially lead to an end in chemical testing on animals. Lisa Truong, deputy director of Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory and assistant professor at OSU, has also been instrumental in getting the project operationalized.

Tanguay plans to use zebrafish as her test subjects because they are vertebrates that grow from a tiny egg to a recognizable fish in 24 hours. This speeds up the process for scientists to observe the biological effects of chemicals at various stages of development, as 84% of chemicals affect humans and zebrafish in similar ways.

Chemical studies tend to be incredibly slow moving, with only 1% of over 80,000 commercial chemicals having been tested for toxicity. Tanguay says that the Food and Drug Administration does a great job of testing chemicals, but the same cannot be said for the rest of the United States. Because there are no requirements in the U.S. to test chemicals for toxicity before commercial use, many companies choose to forego the test and use the chemicals anyway.

“Europe has been moving in that direction for some time, but the U.S. is trailing,” she says. “If you don’t have to test a chemical, why would you?”

Tanguay’s group will expose millions of zebrafish to 10,000 of the most commonly used chemicals in food additives, medicines, consumer products and industrial chemicals.

“We’re not here to say the sky is falling and all chemicals are hazardous,” Tanguay said. “Instead we want to see how we can get folks to make better decisions in the products they choose to buy.”

Many people assume that all commercially-used chemicals must have been tested, but that’s not always, or even usually, the case. Tanguay is advocating for getting the toxicology data before companies can put chemicals in their product. She is working with technology experts to create portals so members of the public can log in and type the name of a chemical to see the toxicity of it before they use it.

“The way we can help the public is just to make our processes and data completely available,” Tanguay said.

Joanna Mann covers education for Mid-Valley Media. She can be contacted at 541-812-6076 or Joanna.Mann@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter via @joanna_mann_. 

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