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A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has developed what the team calls a map of the world’s chemical landscape. Essentially, it is a catalogue of 10,000 chemicals for which safety data is available that can be used to predict the toxicity of some 90,000 other substances in consumer products for which no such information exists.

The team developed the map to help provide regulators, manufacturers and scientists a clearer picture of the harmfulness of chemicals for which there is little research. The team accomplished this by creating a searchable database of 816,000 research studies conducted on 10,000 chemicals registered in Europe, including information about whether they pose a hazard to humans and what type.

“There are 100,000 chemicals in products we use every day and we are missing 90% of the safety information we need,” says study leader Thomas Hartung. Testing all of them would be cost prohibitive. Instead, he says, “we have come up with a computer model that can tell us which chemicals are similar to untested ones to give us an idea of what types of hazards they are likely to pose.”

The team created a map, grouping chemicals by their known toxicities. Hazards that a chemical may cause include allergic skin reaction, serious eye damage, toxicity when inhaled or swallowed, flammability and organ damage. An untested chemical could be entered into the computer map, next to all similar chemicals. If the chemical landed in a part of the map where similar chemicals are considered safe, that chemical could be deemed safe. If it landed in a place where its neighbors are known to cause skin allergies, for example, the chemical would be given that label. If a manufacturer protested that characterization, it could then do the testing necessary to try to prove that label wrong. If it falls in a gray area, testing would be needed.

The researchers call this process of characterizing untested chemicals “read-across.” In conjunction with the database development, Hartung’s group has steered a consensus process with international experts to develop guidance on how to conduct a read-across.

“We want to make it possible that any substance–even a substance not yet synthesized–can be entered into the program and its possible safety problems can be predicted,” Hartung says. “This could help in identifying the better substances to develop cleaner products or exchange those in common use with safer ones.”

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