The role of human biomonitoring in assessing and managing chemical risks

Page Last modified 03 Mar 2017
The use of chemicals in a broad range of products, including medicinal and veterinary products, as well as in agriculture and pest control, provides numerous benefits to society. At the same time, human and environmental exposure to hazardous chemicals represents a cost in terms of impacts on human health and reduced environmental quality. Recognising this, the European Union’s 7th Environmental Action Programme sets the goal of assessing and minimising risks to the environment and health associated with the use of hazardous substances by 2020.

A major hurdle to the reliable risk assessment and management of chemicals is the lack of harmonised information at European level concerning the exposure of citizens, including workers, to chemicals and their interplay with other concurrent environmental exposures and impact on health. Individuals are exposed to a complex mixture of chemicals in their daily lives through the environment, products, food and drinking water and at work. For many chemicals, the health impacts over a lifetime associated with exposure remain unknown. In addition, understanding of the health impacts of exposure to mixtures of chemicals is limited.

Human biomonitoring allows us to measure our exposure to chemicals by measuring either the substances themselves, their metabolites or markers of subsequent health effects in body fluids or tissues. Information on human exposure can then be linked to data on sources and epidemiological surveys, in order to inform research on the exposure-response relationships in humans. 

With the aim of addressing knowledge gaps and promoting innovative approaches, the European Commission launched a call for a European Human Biomonitoring Initiativeunder Horizon 2020’s Societal Challenge on health, demographic change and wellbeing. The objective is to create a European joint programme for monitoring and scientific assessment of human exposures to chemicals and potential health impacts in Europe, building on previous activities undertaken at EU and national levels.

The European Environment Agency is a partner in a consortium that has submitted a proposal under this Horizon 2020 call. The consortium is led by the German Environment Agency (UBA) and brings together leading European expertise on HBM from 22 EU Member States, as well as Norway, Iceland, Israel and Switzerland. 

Objectives of the proposed European Joint Programme, HBM4EU

The European Joint Programme, entitled HBM4EU, will generate knowledge to inform the safe management of chemicals and so protect human health in Europe. We will use human biomonitoring to understand human exposure to chemicals and resulting health impacts and will communicate with policy makers to ensure that our results are exploited in the design of new chemicals policies and the evaluation of existing measures.

Key objectives include:

  • Harmonizing procedures for human biomonitoring across the 26 participating countries, to provide policy makers with comparable data on human internal exposure to chemicals and mixtures of chemicals at EU level
  • Linking data on internal exposure to chemicals to aggregate external exposure and identifying exposure pathways and upstream sources
  • Generating scientific evidence on the causal links between human exposure to chemicals and health outcomes
  • Adapting chemical risk assessment methodologies to use human biomonitoring data and account for the contribution of multiple external exposure pathways to the total chemical body burden
  • Feeding information on exposure pathways into the design of targeted policy measures to reduce exposure

In order to achieve these objectives, the consortium plans to harmonize human biomonitoring initiatives in 26 countries, by drawing on existing expertise and building new capacities. National Hubs will be established in each country to coordinate activities, so creating a robust Human Biomonitoring Platform at pan-European level.

This initiative contributes directly to the improvement of health and well-being for all citizens, by investigating how exposure to chemicals affects the health of different groups, such as children, pregnant women, foetuses and workers. Research will investigate how factor such as behaviour, lifestyle and socio-economic status influence internal exposure to chemicals across the EU population. This knowledge will be fed directly into policy making to reduce chemical exposure and protect human health.    

If successful, HBM4EU will run for five years, from 2017 to 2021, with the long-term objective of establishing a sustained programme. In developing priorities for HBM4EU under the first annual work plan, the consortium conducted a prioritisation exercise to identify those substances to be the focus of activities. Additional rounds of prioritisation will be carried out during the project lifespan in order to respond dynamically to policy needs. 

The first year will be largely dedicated to collecting and collating existing HBM data for the nine prioritised substance groups, making data available, as appropriate, via the Information Platform for Chemical Monitoring, and determining which current policy questions can be answered using existing data. This will allow us to evaluate the extent to which a solid database of comparable HBM data from across the EU can be subject to systematic analysis, so providing answers to key policy questions.

Additional information

European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100