Many of the substances and products we come into contact with are absorbed or excreted by our bodies. Assuming that this won’t have long-term consequences is risky. Not all health effects of products and substances or of our environment are known, especially not long-term or when they occur simultaneously.

Nathalie, what does this project mean to you?

I am studying the impact of the environment and life style on our health. Because babies are the most sensitive to dangerous substances, they are at the centre of our research. The health of the baby and its mother are being studied from before birth to many years after. Researchers analyse allergies, birth parameters, pollutants and vitamin and hormone levels in urine and blood samples. The research shows that there are still high levels of heavy metals present in newborn babies - born from 2011 to 2014 - probably due to the former industrial activities in the area.

We don't think about all the things we come into contact with on a daily basis and what the effects on our health might be.

How important do you think scientific communication is?

It is very important to popularise science in order to raise awareness of products and substances people come into contact with on a daily basis and the effects that those products might have. To inform the participants of the project of the progress of the research, we recently organised a family day on the Zilvermeer domain in Mol. The participants were given further explanations about the results of the study and could share their experiences with other participants. To communicate about science, you need thorough knowledge of the study and a talent for communication. You do not talk about ‘exposure to phthalates’ but about the receipt you get after paying for your groceries (which may contain phthalates). Moreover, we do not just involve the participants with the results of the study, but we also suggest policies for local governments to improve children’s quality of life.

What makes it even more fascinating is that the study is performed in cooperation with scientists from other areas, such as sociologists from the University of Antwerp, doctors and nurses from the Provincial Institute for Hygiene, and also local partners.

You are a very driven researcher and you have a family with two young children. How do you balance this combination of work and family?

VITO is an attractive employer because the biomonitoring research brings creativity and multidisciplinarity into my work, but VITO also offers flexibility. I have two young children: a four-year-old and a one-year-old. The combination of work and young children is undoubtedly complicated for everyone. Having fl exible hours helps me to fully optimise my efforts at work and at home.

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