His laboratory is the only one in Switzerland that tests the effects of hazardous chemicals on samples of viable human skin.
We study products used in workplaces that could be hazardous to employees’ health. Our work forms the basis for defining prevention strategies and fostering the implementation of regulations. Knowledge remains very limited on the risks of chemicals being absorbed through the skin, especially due to their vast diversity.
The skin of pigs features similarities with human skin, but its surface and hair growth are different, so the results are less representative. Similarly, we could miss certain effects by testing on frozen human skin. By working with the service of plastic and reconstructive surgery and the service of dermatology to provide us with samples, we can conduct our trials on viable skin. The findings of our study on phthalates, plasticisers found in vinyl gloves for example, showed that they pass through the skin barrier, contrary to the claims of theoretical models.
The risk of chemical absorption through the skin concerns any sector where chemicals are used in large quantities, e.g. the chemicals industry, construction or farming. And if we factor in local effects such as skin irritations, the risk extends considerably to a wider range of fields that includes professional cleaners or hairdressers, who are in contact with a broad spectrum of chemicals.
David Vernez is the interim director of the Swiss Institute for Work and Health