How many chemicals in the environment are too much? EU-wide initiative seeks answers
Whether we like it or not, chemicals are a major part of life. We accept them as a necessary element of modern existence. But what are the long-term effects of chemical exposure on human health? Is there a point at which we may be exposed to more substances than we can physically tolerate?
An emerging scientific field called human biomonitoring, or HBM, allows researchers and doctors to find out whether and to what extent chemicals in our air, water and food are entering our bodies – and, importantly, – how these exposures may be changing over time. HBM gets its information by measuring the concentration of potentially harmful substances or their metabolites in the body. Ultimately, these findings can uncover possible health risks and help shape decision-making about reducing these risks at the societal and individual levels.
At the forefront of this cross-cutting initiative is a European Union (EU)-funded project known as COPHES, or the Consortium to Perform Human Biomonitoring on a European Scale. COPHES unites 35 research partners in 27 European countries in an unprecedented effort to design human biomonitoring procedures that can be harmonised across Europe. The ultimate goal is to support policymakers in developing and implementing preventive actions, to evaluate the effectiveness of regulatory measures, and to find out whether European standards or limits should be set for human exposure to certain chemicals.
“Human biomonitoring is the best tool to assess the chemical burden of a particular person at a point in time,” says Anke Joas of BiPRO, which coordinated COPHES together with KU Leuven. “With the first European-wide project of its kind, we have established an expert network and elaborated a common European protocol allowing to compare data from country-to-country across Europe and internationally,” explains Joas.
As part of its study, the COPHES team focused on tobacco smoke and four chemicals known to pose certain health risks: mercury, a byproduct of coal-fired power production and various other industrial processes; cadmium, a power-plant pollutant also found in tobacco smoke; phthalates, which are additives in plastics; and bisphenol A, which is used in glue, varnishes, and as a coating for food cans and receipt paper. In addition, the project team supported the implementation of the common European protocol in the 17 partner countries that participated in the Life+ co-funded project, DEMOCOPHES.
Researchers from DEMOCOPHES took hair and urine samples from 1,844 mother-child pairs living in rural or urban areas and examined them for these chemicals and substances. The project team used questionnaires to collect information about factors such as living conditions, socioeconomic status, diet, occupation etc. The information collected was evaluated by COPHES at a European scale.
Among the findings, there was a “clear connection” between the presence of mercury and the consumption of fish. Εlevated amounts of cotinine and cadmium as indicators for tobacco smoke were found in countries where smoking levels are still high. The levels in children were highly correlated with the levels in their mothers.
“For the first time, we have information on these chemicals in 17 EU countries that is comparable between countries and internationally,” Joas says. “This will support policymaking and, if repeated over time, will allow formulating conclusions on risks, something which was not possible based on national and regional data,” she adds.
This, however, can only be a starting point. In order to maximise the potential of HBM, measurements must be repeated with larger sample sizes and more target chemicals.
The work now turns to incorporating human biomonitoring into health- and environment-related decisions being made by EU political institutions, such as EU food safety, environment, and consumer protection agencies. It is also important that the momentum underway towards improving the assessment and management of chemical risks continues into the future.