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Article related to: People and perspectives
Human biomonitoring: which unexpected chemicals are in our bodies?
We are all exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals at home, at work, in the products we buy, the food we eat and in the water we drink. A new joint initiative by the European Commission and 26 countries, co-funded under Horizon 2020, will use human biomonitoring to better understand how we are being exposed to chemicals and how our health might be impacted.
Over the next five years, the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) will generate information on our exposure to chemicals as well as the health effects caused by this exposure.
Biomonitoring measures the body burden of toxic chemicals, their metabolites and markers of subsequent health effects in human bodily fluids or tissue. This is usually done by taking samples of blood or urine and measuring the presence of chemicals. This work could result in some important developments:
- Giving information to medical practitioners to help them select the right medical treatments for their patients.
- Helping authorities to advise the public about what they need to do to reduce their exposure.
- Understanding the link between chemical exposure and health.
The data generated will be of interest to policy makers and regulators, scientists, journalists, companies manufacturing and using the chemicals involved and the citizens of Europe.
Chemical exposure and health
For many chemicals, the health impacts of exposure and the ways in which people become exposed remain uncertain. There is even more uncertainty about the impact of exposure to mixtures of chemicals (the cocktail effect) and emerging substances. Increasing the knowledge we have on this is crucial to continue providing a high level of scientific input into policy making.
The results of the biomonitoring will be combined with health information to gain a better understanding of exposure-response relationships. The initiative will develop and use modelling tools that will help identify the most likely sources of exposure to certain groups of chemicals.
Health impacts across different age groups and genders will be looked at, and socio-economic status, environmental conditions, lifestyle and diet will also be taken into account. The information generated from the biomonitoring will be used to investigate any causal links between the chemicals we are exposed to and the impact they have on our health.
Harmonised biomonitoring activities in Europe
At present, there is little comparable information from the Member States on our exposure to chemicals. This is a major obstacle in the pursuit of reliably assessing and managing chemical risks.
The HBM4EU initiative will result in harmonised data on the levels of human exposure to chemicals and mixtures across Europe.
The research will tackle current policy questions and then form a scientific basis to inform policy makers and help them steer decisions towards prioritising the safe use of chemicals and protecting human health.
The close collaboration of scientists and policy makers can ensure that the research truly reflects and addresses current societal concerns.
The initiative will focus on different substances during the five-year period. This prioritisation will take account of whether a substance is known to be of concern to human health and whether there is existing evidence of exposure at EU level.
ECHA is closely following the project and is helping to identify and prioritise substances and substance groups for biomonitoring.
The first prioritisation round resulted in nine groups of substances that will be the focus in 2017 and 2018. The substance groups are:
- phthalates and Hexamoll® DINCH – phthalates are mainly used as plasticisers (substances added to plastic to make them more flexible, transparent, durable or sustainable). Hexamoll® DINCH is a non-phthalate plasticiser;
- bisphenols – a group of widely-used chemicals used in certain types of plastic (polycarbonate) and synthetic resin (epoxy resin). They can be found in products made of clear, hard plastic, such as water bottles, DVDs and credit cards;
- per-/polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) – used universally in the production of teflon and related fluorinated polymers. They have been used to make fabrics water and stain resistant and also in fire-fighting foams;
- flame retardants – added to manufactured materials, such as plastics and textiles, and surface finishes and coatings. They inhibit or delay the spread of fire by suppressing the chemical reactions in the flames or by forming a protective layer on the surface of a material;
- cadmium and chromium – cadmium is a common component of electric batteries, pigments, coatings and electroplating; chromium is primarily used to form metal alloys, but is also used as a wood preservative, for tanning leather, and as a refractory material;
- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – found naturally in the environment and are common by-products of combustion processes. PAHs are a natural component of most fossil fuels. Most PAHs in ambient air are due to man-made processes including burning fuels such as coal, wood, petroleum, petroleum products, or oil; burning refuse, used tires, polypropylene, or polystyrene; producing coke; and motor vehicle exhausts.
- anilines – a group of organic bases used to make dyes, drugs, explosives, plastics, photographic and rubber chemicals;
- chemical mixtures; and
- emerging substances.
More rounds will be conducted during the five-year project to identify further substance groups for 2019-2020.
The European Human Biomonitoring Initiative is a joint project between 26 countries and the European Commission to provide evidence of the actual exposure of European citizens to chemicals and their possible health effects.
The countries involved include 22 EU Member States, Iceland, Israel, Norway and Switzerland.
The initiative is currently compiling a list of European laboratories with experience in the chemical analysis of human samples, development of analytical methods in biological samples and organisation of ICI/EQUAS schemes with biological samples. The aim is to produce an inventory of laboratories for a future network of reference human biomonitoring laboratories. If you represent an interested laboratory, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Text by Paul Trouth
Top image: © iStock.com/psphotograph
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