Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

Scientists ramp up monitoring of chemicals in people’s bodies

Bisphenol A, which is found in plastic packaging and bottles, will be one of the first chemicals examined by a new project to research the health effects of everyday chemicals. Photo credit: Flickr/ Rob Sinclair

European scientists are joining forces to find out more about the impact of common chemicals on human health, with the aim of providing solid evidence of risk that can feed into new regulations and policies.

Every day we are exposed to a multitude of chemicals from sources as diverse as cars, food, clothing, paints and smartphones. Globally, 4 million tonnes of chemicals are produced every year, but how much we know about their effects on our health varies from substance to substance.

Now, 107 organisations from 26 countries have come together to form the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU), with the aim of answering questions in chemical risk assessment to help policymakers protect human health.

Human biomonitoring involves assessing people’s exposure to chemicals by measuring the amount of natural and synthetic compounds in tissues such as hair and nails, or bodily fluids such as blood, urine and breast milk. When combined with information about people’s lifestyles and medical histories, it can help uncover information about what chemicals people are exposed to, where they come from and what effects they might have.

While this is done already at national level, the idea of HBM4EU is to join up research across the continent, allowing it to be shared between different countries and fed into policy decisions. The project will also carry out new studies into the effects of certain chemicals on people’s health.

Speaking at the launch of HBM4EU, which took place in Brussels, Belgium, on 8 December, Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: ‘Chemicals are all around us, in every part of our lives. Stories about chemicals in our houses appear in newspapers and on the internet every day. And the evidence behind these stories, most of the time, is vague or not there. And that is something that we have to fight against.’

He said the main objective of the initiative was to provide new knowledge by promoting data sharing between countries, developing joint guidelines and standards for how biomonitoring is carried out, and providing access to a network of qualified labs. He said that the evidence produced by the project would feed into policy.

‘(In Europe) we have an amazing regulation for chemicals, I would say it is the world’s best. But that regulation cannot be static. Especially in the world we live in, (it) has to continuously take on board scientific evidence. We need that better evidence about people’s exposure to different chemicals in their daily lives to ensure that we do our best to protect public health.’

Regulation

Currently, chemical substances are monitored through the EU’s REACH regulation, which requires companies to identify and manage the risks linked to the substances they manufacture and market in the EU.

Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said the HBM4EU project will build on this work. ‘REACH has delivered many benefits. Ten years after its adoption we have a wealth of information about chemicals on the European market. But many pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

‘All of us are exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals in our daily life.’

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety

‘This programme will help us complete the picture. (Biomonitoring) tests are still not frequent, we have very little data that is Europe-wide and easy to compare. The more we know, the better we can protect human health.’

The project will begin work on 1 January 2017 and continue for five years. The first year of operation will see HBM4EU assess risks associated with seven groups of chemicals, including bisphenols, which are found in plastic packaging and bottles, and flame retardants, often used to coat textiles and plastics. It will also examine risks from new chemicals and from mixtures of substances.

This is important because chemicals could have a different effect on human health when combined with other substances than they do in isolation.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said that many decisions about chemicals are made on a case-by-case basis, without looking at the whole picture.

‘There may be a lack of harmonised information at European level concerning the exposure of people to multiple chemicals and their possible interaction. All of us are exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals in our daily lives though food, drinking water, the environment, as well as other products. The understanding of the health impact of exposure to a mixture of chemicals is limited.’

HBM4EU researchers will also be addressing questions of how to streamline the design of surveys and sampling methods to ensure that comparable data is collected from people in different countries, and what other chemicals should be assessed over the course of the project.

Marike Kolossa-Gehring from the German Environment Agency, who coordinates HBM4EU, said that the first list of chemicals were chosen because there are open policy questions about them and a need for Europe-wide knowledge.

‘Our main aims are to answer open, policy-relevant questions, to give policymakers fast and easy access to results and data, and to bridge the gap between science and policy.’

Their work will be supported by a database known as IPCheM set up by the European’s Joint Research Centre and launched to the public in 2015. It is designed to make data on chemicals openly available, easily searchable and comparable.

If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

More info