Human exposure

Human exposure

A person is exposed to many environmental factors within his/her local environment: chemical emissions from consumer products (particles, air pollutants), environmental noise, molds etc. These chemical, physical, and biological factors play an important role in people’s health, especially in the development and progression of disease. Assessing human exposure of individuals or populations to environmental factors is an important component and integral part of human health risk assessment. To achieve this a fundamental shift towards trans-disciplinary collaborations, that would link exposure and health sciences, is necessary.

We support the exposure science community and EU environmental and public health related policies to develop harmonised, integrated and robust methodologies, tools and guidance for occupational and non-occupational exposure assessments concerning different routes (air, water, soil) and pathways (inhalation, ingestion, dermal contact) of exposure and to reliably apply these in various legislative frameworks and policies (consumer products, energy efficiency buildings, environmental noise, human biomonitoring).

We collaborate with other European Commission Services, EU Member States, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the European Environment Agency (EEA), NGOs and other strategic partners and stakeholders on an international scale for the development of holistic, harmonised and standardised concepts and approaches for human exposure which are based on innovative and state of the art monitoring and modelling methodologies of environmental stressors.

Exposure and Health Impact Assessment Methodologies

Stressors such as air pollution and noise have been confirmed as being among the leading causes of  environment related disease in many European countries (EEA-JRC report on Environment and Human Health, 2013). The prevention of such diseases, arising from chemical, biological and physical stressors, through improved outdoor and indoor air quality is also part of the 7th EU Environmental Programme and the WHO Regional Priority Goals 3 and 4 as reflected in the WHO Ministerial Declaration on Environment and Health (Parma Declaration on Environment and Health, 2010). This includes the development of a consistent and rational approach to human bio-monitoring as a tool to assist evidence-based public health and environmental measures.

Various pieces of EU legislation require that the health impact of exposure to chemicals and other physical and biological factors is accurately assessed. Analysing the effects of these factors over a sustained period is a highly complex process. We are actively supporting the development of appropriate integrated methodologies and software tools which aim to ensure the systematic and standardised assessment of the consequences of exposure to these factors and other agents referenced in EU legislation.

To support the exposure and risk assessment within the EU Regulatory Framework for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH regulation, (EC) No. 1907/2006) and the General Product Safety Directive (GPSD, 2001/95/EC), the European Commission initiated the development of exposure assessment related frameworks and tools. JRC related activities focus on:

  • The development of an exposure based framework/decision guidance platform for matching exposure and risk assessment tools and approaches to exposure scenarios, models, determinants (including human biomonitoring data and omics based biomarkers) and applications across international collaborative studies. Synergies are envisaged to develop with other relevant initiatives and tools at EU and global level (e.g., Information Platform for Chemical Monitoring – IPCheM and the U.S. EPA's Expo-Box) and international bodies (e.g., OECD). The ultimate objective is the development of a consensus-driven common guidance tool for exposure and risk assessors supporting chemicals and their mixtures to use in various public health policies within the EU and on a global scale.
  • The harmonisation and integration of exposure factors systems and data world-wide, which are relevant to exposure and risk assessment of chemicals, performed in the context of several legislative frameworks on environment and public health within the EU and beyond (e.g., EU Regulatory Framework for the Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals - REACH, Biocides Products Regulation - BPR, General Products Safety Directive - GPSR, Plant Protection Products Regulation - PPPR, Cosmetics Products Regulation - CPR, Dietary and Food Contact related policies). 

Assessing Exposure and Health Risks in Energy Efficient Buildings

Europeans spend on average almost 90% of their time inside various types of buildings (homes, offices, restaurants, bars, hotels, shops and other public buildings). Exposure to outdoor and indoor chemicals, noise, radon, particulate matter, dust and dampness, moulds and other biological agents (which are released from numerous building materials and consumer products such as paints, furniture and fittings, printers, cleaning agents etc.) has been linked to increased prevalence of respiratory symptoms, allergies and asthma as well as perturbation of the immunological system.

Assessing air exposure and health risks in buildings is a complex issue due to a wide number and type of sources and pollutants, exposure levels and health implications as well as the differences in cultural habits, living style, building stock and climates across the EU. We have been working to develop a holistic approach for the built environment in support of relevant EU policies which will make it safer, healthier, more energy efficient and sustainable.


Several European and national policies, technical guidelines, standards, and best practices have been developed to address various building-related systems and pollutants. To guarantee human health protection while rationalising economic and energy expenditure in buildings, these initiatives need to collectively and synergistically support each other. This requires the involvement and of EU decision makers, national and local authorities, technical experts, manufacturers, technology providers, building designers, maintenance experts, civil society organisations, each person through his/her behaviour.

In connection with Europe 2020 Strategy, we support research activities and policy related actions for streamlining, building and implementing a holistic and integrated approach which bridges safety, health, energy efficiency and sustainability aspects across existing legislative instruments and standardisation activities related to the built environment (e.g. energy performance, indoor air quality, noise, safety of constructions, consumer products). This will allow achieving a balance between good indoor air quality and the rational use of energy in buildings through the use of innovative technologies and appropriate regulation and enforcement regimes. It will also help in avoiding potential pitfalls of energy efficiency requirements in existing, new and renovated buildings which may negatively impact on human health.

We have been specifically contributing to the development of harmonisation frameworks and guidelines at the EU level for:

•     Monitoring, testing and evaluating the health impact of emissions from construction and consumer products used inside buildings,

•     Investigating the relative importance of outdoor and indoor sources of pollution and the relationship between ventilation, indoor air quality and rational use of energy to human health and comfort,

•     Simulating real-life exposure scenarios to physical, chemical and biological pollutants and testing and validating innovative technological solutions for clean and eco-efficient buildings, through the use of e.g. photocatalytic construction materials.

  • Developing strategies and standardised methodologies and indicators at European level  to assess, prevent, reduce and remediate health risks in energy-efficient buildings by: reducing pollution at source, diluting pollution through health-based and best ventilation  practices and producing innovative and safety by design solutions for construction materials and consumer products


Assessing exposure and burden of disease due to environmental noise

Environmental noise is due to transport, industrial and recreational activities. We are involuntarily exposed to it in our workplace, on the streets and in our homes. It is now recognised that prolonged exposure can lead to significant health effects, both physical and mental. The EU's Environmental Noise Directive 2002/49/EC sets out to monitor noise pollution and develop long-term policies for noise reduction. We provide technical support for the implementation of the directive.

Traffic related noise may account for over 1 million healthy life years lost in Europe. Urbanisation and a steep increase in traffic are the main causes of escalating environmental noise exposure in Europe. This estimation breaks down to 61 000 years lost for ischaemic heart disease, 45 000 years for cognitive impairment of children, 903 000 years for sleep disturbance, 22 000 years for tinnitus and 654 000 years for annoyance in the European Union Member States and other western European countries. According to the European Commission’s 2011 White Paper on Transport, traffic noise-related external costs would increase to roughly € 20 billion by 2050 (compared to 2005) unless further action is taken.

Europe is acting to fight noise pollution.  The Environmental Noise Directive (2002/49/EC) requires EU Member States to determine the exposure to environmental noise through strategic noise mapping and elaborate action plans to reduce noise pollution. Since June 2007, EU countries are obliged to produce strategic noise maps for all major roads, railways, airports and agglomerations, on a five‐year basis. These noise maps are used by national competent authorities to identify priorities for action planning and by the European Commission to globally assess noise exposure across the EU. This information also serves to inform the general public about the levels of noise to which they are exposed, and about actions undertaken to reduce noise pollution to a level not harmful to public health and the environment.

We support the European Commission noise policy by developing harmonised methodologies and tools (CNOSSOS-EU project) to reliably estimate the exposure to environmental noise and the associated health impact on European citizens. These are used to produce strategic noise maps which are used by the EU national competent authorities to identify priorities for action planning and by the European Commission to provide global assessments of noise exposure across the EU. This information also serves to inform the general public about the levels of noise to which they are exposed, and about actions undertaken to reduce noise pollution.

We have also been collaborating with the WHO to review the evidence on health effects from environmental noise, to provide guidance and promote knowledge transfer and capacity building on how to quantify the associated risks and estimate the associated burden of disease in European countries.

In the framework of the European Network on Noise and Health (ENNAH) project, we published an extensive review of the evidence on the health impacts of noise exposure.

Linking Human Exposure to Human Biomonitoring

Human biomonitoring is an analytical approach which focuses directly on measuring the volume of toxic chemical compounds present in the body. This is often, performed through the analysis of bio-fluids such as blood and urine. The way in which these chemicals accumulate in air, soil or water may be quite different from their behaviour in the human body. Analysis of environmental chemicals in human tissues is the most effective way of knowing which of these we should be most wary of. This is an important tool for assessing human exposure to environmental substances and in some cases their potential health risks.  It is seen as an essential element in a strategy for environmental health impact assessment and we are involved in the development of a coherent approach to the collection and analysis of this important data.

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