Human Biomonitoring, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Dr Marike Kolossa-Gehring, biologist and toxicologist and got her PhD from the Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel, Germany.
What is the HBM4EU mission and priorities?
Marike Kolossa-Gehring: The mission of HBM4EU is to protect people in Europe from the exposure to hazardous chemicals and thereby improving human health. Pollutants like plasticisers, glyphosate or mercury are spread throughout the environment, they are ubiquitous today. Exposure to these and other chemicals is considered an issue of concern as they can negatively affect human health and well-being. The HBM4EU priorities are to provide Europe-wide data on the exposure of people to priority chemicals of concern, to identify and assess the health effects of these exposures and to derive policy recommendations from the scientific findings.
The exposure assessment method of choice is Human Biomonitoring (HBM) which allows for the measurement of the internal human exposure via all sources to chemicals by analysing human matrices, preferably blood or urine.
Within five years (2017-2021), the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) aims to establish a Europe-wide Human Biomonitoring that provides comparable HBM results tailored to feed directly into policy making in the areas of health, environment and chemicals to protect human health more effectively.
What has been accomplished in the last 2-3 years?
Marike Kolossa-Gehring: Even though we have just finished year 3 HBM4EU has already produced a large number of impressive results, products and publications. The first big success of HBM4EU accomplished in the first years was to set up this big network at the science policy interface in which national and European agencies, ministries in charge of the national research programmes, universities and other research institutions work together to improve chemicals policy and answer concrete policy relevant questions. Additionally, the agreement to directly share data and results and make them available immediately after finalisation to policy makers and also to the public can be counted as a big step forward.
Another success so far is the building up of an efficient working structure: HBM4EU is a large initiative of 117 involved parties from 30 countries, organising its work in 16 work packages grouped into three pillars.
Work is generally overarching, spread across several years and many different activities are essential to its final success. A couple of highlighted works include:
Communication: People in Europe are concerned about their involuntary exposure to chemicals and want to know more about environmental chemicals. Study participants need background information on the goals and procedures of the study they consider to join. Policy makers ask for clear and comparable indicators of exposure. Laypeople and scientists prefer different levels of complex and understandable information. To cover these needs, HBM4EU has developed an impressive number of diverse and target specific texts, materials, indicators and videos which are shared via the HBM4EU website or social media platforms.
Assessment values: First, consolidated Human Biomonitoring Guidance Values (HBM GVs) have been developed under inclusion of all National Hubs and representatives of the EU Policy Board (e.g. EFSA and ECHA). They are useful tools to assess chemical exposure levels measured in HBM studies in a risk assessment context. After HBM4EU had developed an approach how to derive these guidance values for the general population and the occupational field based on scientific evidence it was applied by our experts and first Human Biomonitoring Guidance Values (HBM-GVs) for plasticisers like DEHP and DINCH were derived. More values are currently under development or discussion in the consortium.
Exposure-response relationships in HBM4EU: Starting with the example of anti-androgenic chemicals which are known to additively impact male reproductive health a proof of concept has been developed which might build the basis for a regulatory discussion about the need for an additional uncertainty factor. In interactions with other EU programmes on mixture toxicity a gap analysis for research and regulatory needs has been conducted and a respective recommendation has been sent to the EU Commission.
What is at the forefront of the agenda for the next 2 years?
Marike Kolossa-Gehring: The main focus in the last two years of the initiative is on answering the policy questions for the priority substances with the help of gathered harmonised HBM data, which is in turn interpreted in a risk assessment context by the use of HBM-GVs and of results from research on the health impact of internal exposure. Another major focus will be on the communication of results and on distributing the latest knowledge generated by HBM4EU to policy makers, the general public and all parties concerned/involved.
The results of the targeted mixture study on pesticides as well as the second occupational study are expected to provide knowledge on internal exposure of people living near pesticide hot spots and workers respectively.
It is also an essential task in 2020 and 2021 to focus on HBM4EU legacy and the potential to embed HBM activities in legislation for Europe. Next to the results of HBM4EU being publicly available on the HBM4EU website, the project will undertake further efforts to continue the work of the now established HBM network in the future.
Looking to the future, is it envisaged that this project will be the foundation of continued biomonitoring? Should citizens in Europe feel safer knowing that this work is going on?
Marike Kolossa-Gehring: Yes and yes.
A sustainable HBM programme in Europe can deliver important knowledge by continuously collecting new HBM data. In an enormous effort HBM4EU has built up the network for HBM in Europe. It has generated harmonised materials including SOPs and created the network of qualified HBM laboratories. This work has laid the foundation and set the standard for HBM on an excellent scientific level. Without a continuation all these efforts and investments of the 30 HBM4EU partner countries and of the EU Commission would be lost. A continuation of the HBM project could fill the gap to supplement the established monitoring systems for water, soil and air by a monitoring for human internal exposure. The further use of HBM as a control instrument by monitoring well-known chemicals as well as discovering chemicals of emerging concern will foster the transparency of chemical use and may help to set priorities in chemicals regulation. Therefore, science-based data obtained with harmonised approaches and methods are relevant for policy makers to refine and adapt chemical policies and ultimately make an essential step forward in protecting the citizens’ health all over Europe.
HBM4EU supports the feeling of security in citizens by helping to improve regulation but also by delivering science based, easily accessible information – and knowledge-derived recommendations on how to reduce personal exposure. HBM4EU results will also help citizens to distinguish between potential risks and irrational fears.
Results are freely available on the HBM4EU website.