He studies the impact of chemicals to give our children a healthier future

Every day, we are exposed to a large and ever-increasing amount of chemicals. They are effective as preservatives, but they are also a cause for concern. Professor Terje Svingen is particularly concerned about the many substances that can disrupt the hormonal balance in humans.

Man sits on one of two swings in a swing set. Photo: Bax Lindhardt
Professor Terje Svingen works to acquire knowledge so that we avoid using chemicals that have an endocrine-disrupting effect. Photo: Bax Lindhardt

Balancing benefits and harm

Terje Svingen’s group are currently testing chemicals in substances such as hand sanitizer, which suddenly became something we used every day during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, most of the tests conducted for endocrine disrupting activities so far have been negative.

One group of substances that is cause for concern is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS chemicals. They are used in a multitude of products due to their desired properties: They repel water and oil and were used in firefighting foams until 2011. 

But they are also highly problematic because it can take many years before they are broken down in nature and they accumulate in animals and humans. Unfortunately, it also looks as if they have many harmful effects that affect more than just the endocrine system. They are also associated with cancer, decreased immune response, high cholesterol, and a lower birth weight.

So PFAS is one example of a group of substances that should have been tested more thoroughly before they were used. “As a society and as individuals, we are constantly faced with choices that can make our everyday lives easier on one hand and the consequences our choices may have on our health and environment on the other hand. When choosing on behalf of others, however, the precautionary principle should always prevail,” says Terje Svingen.

Knowledge-based choices

While he is extremely familiar with the problems related to chemicals, the professor is also pragmatic. He does not want a completely chemical-free life.

“Like most Norwegians, I enjoy going on walks in nature. And I also enjoy being able to stay dry on these walks. And adding PFAS in rainwear or shoes could help with this. But if it turns out that these chemicals are harmful to humans and the environment, they should of course be replaced with something less harmful,” he says.

“Similarly, there are both advantages and disadvantages associated with pesticides. It’s not only about the size of the harvest, but also about preventing fungi, which can develop toxins, from growing on grains, fruits, and nuts. You must make an overall assessment and figure out how much you can allow and how the chemical needs to be used in order to be sufficiently safe.”

Terje Svingen contributes to creating a research-based foundation for politicians to make these difficult decisions. 

“It sometimes feels like a drop in the ocean, but sometimes it does lead to success. We now have slightly stricter restrictions on some endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates. And bisphenol A has been banned in many products, for instance in baby bottles, but unfortunately, they’re still being produced,” he explains.

“Obviously, I sometimes wish my work had more impact on legislation. But Denmark is actually a frontrunner in regulating endocrine disruptors. It’s a small country, but a big player in the EU within this area. We have good cooperation between researchers and the authorities, we care about the people, and we try to do the best we can.”

Reading, vision, and good communication

On a more personal level, it is important to him to share his knowledge not only with peers but also with society. “I can do my nerdy experiments, but if the results aren't disseminated, what difference does it make?” he asks.

Terje Svingen therefore spends as much time as he can writing articles, giving lectures, and participating in debates. He also reads a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, classics and new authors, because he believes this is one of the most important things you can do to get a better understanding of the world and see everything more clearly. He encourages his students to do the same, and he sometimes buys them a book and inspires them to think about what makes a text readable.

He has also devoted three hours a week in the research group to discussing and sharing experiences with writing articles. 

“If you communicate well, people will believe what you say, and it will be easier to get funding for research. It’s a very important part of the job,” he says. “Stop writing for yourself—write for an audience. It’s often the simple sentences without too many academic words that capture the reader’s interest,” he says. 

Curiosity as a driving force

As a young man, Terje Svingen aspired to become a school teacher. But halfway through his studies, he decided to go to Australia. He wanted to get a science degree there that would qualify him to teach biology at high school level when he got home. But then he was offered a PhD scholarship at a university in Brisbane and ended up staying in Australia for 16 years. 

“The PhD thesis was on molecular biology and breast cancer. It was exciting, but it also made me think that it’s impossible to understand the origin of cancer properly without also knowing something about developmental biology. There are many similarities between the two, especially at the molecular level. So, I applied for a job at a recognized lab that did research on what genes and factors determine whether a foetus develops testes or ovaries. I got so caught up in the subject that I couldn’t let it go. I stayed in the group for over seven years, but as a postdoc you have to move on, and I also started to miss Europe and my family,” he says. 

However, he did not return to Norway. Just the right research position turned up at Rigshospitalet in Denmark, where they did research on reproduction in relation to testicular cancer, among other things. However, Terje Svingen saw himself more as a basic researcher than a medical researcher and therefore applied for a position as molecular biologist at DTU. 

“How do the many chemicals we’re exposed to contribute to the damage we’re increasingly seeing that’s associated with endocrine disruption during foetal development? And how can we protect ourselves from them? That’s where it all started for me, and it’s still my driving force,” he says. 

Growing research group

Society is also showing a growing interest in this particular topic. The Research Group for Molecular and Reproductive Toxicology now counts 20 employees, and recently, Terje Svingen has been appointed head of a large EU project with 11 European partners, which will investigate the harmful effects of endocrine disruptors, e.g., in relation to sex development and gender identity, over the next five years. 

There is no single truth about endocrine disruptors and their harmful effects on humans. 

“I can test a substance in a petri dish and see that it disrupts the endocrine system. That’s a fact, and I might conclude that this chemical is not safe to use, but others might say that the effect is so small that it’s OK. That’s the reality. It’s difficult, but it’s also exciting. I never tire of investigating the link between endocrine disruptors and biological effects.”