Mothers and children throughout Europe tested for pollutant exposure

Mercury contamination increases with consumption of fish

Exposure to pollution varies greatly in Europe, as proven by the results of a first pan-European comparative study. A total of 1,844 mothers and their children from 17 European countries were tested for exposure to mercury, cadmium, cotinine and several phthalates. The measured values varied greatly from country to country, sometimes by a factor of as much as 40. This is due to differences in environment, diet and lifestyle. Since the study sample was small, the results cannot be transferred to the entire population. However, the results indicate that human exposure to pollutants must continue to be monitored and reduced in Europe and Germany. The basis of the measurements was a standardised European research scheme for human biomonitoring, which was developed by the COPHES and DEMOCOPHES research collaborations. Human biomonitoring traces pollutants in the human organism.

Variations between the countries were greatest for mercury. The higher the consumption of fish in a given country, the higher the levels of mercury detected. The values measured in Germany were below the European average of .145 micrograms per gram of hair in children and .225 micrograms per gram of hair in mothers. Germany measured .055 micrograms per gram of hair in children, and .113 micrograms per gram of hair in mothers. Measurements of cotinine, which indicate how great human exposure is to tobacco smoke or passive smoking,  also varied considerably. The levels of mercury and cotinine in mothers correlates closely with that in their children. The two groups are evidently exposed to similar sources, for example through food or living environment. Exposure to the toxic heavy metal cadmium rises with age. Tobacco smoking increases levels of cadmium in the body. 

Throughout Europe, including in Germany, there are still mothers and children whose exposure to at least one chemical is too high and for which the Human Biomonitoring Commission at the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) cannot rule out an impact on health. Some 3.4% of the mothers tested in Germany and 2.5% of the children had higher levels of cadmium or phthalates than considered normal. The data for phthalate exposure indicate that average exposure in children has declined since the Child Environment Survey, yet 1.7% of children still have traces of the phthalate DEHP at levels that pose a health risk. There were 120 mothers and their children aged 6-11 who took part in the study in Germany.

The levels of mercury exposure and fish consumption measured in Germany were below the European average. Exposure to cotinine was low by European comparison, but children must nevertheless be better protected against passive smoking, for nearly half of all children are exposed to passive smoke outside the home. Exposure to cadmium was unexpectedly high, and the Federal Environment Agency intends to carry out further investigations in this regard.

UBA will continue to cooperate on the harmonisation of European Human Biomonitoring, not least of all in an effort to support the EU chemicals regulation with the best possible exposure data, but also for the sake of the protection of all of Europe’s people against environmental health risks.

More information and links

What is human biomonitoring?
Human biomonitoring, or HBM, focuses on testing human exposure to environmental chemicals, identification of contamination sources and assessment of their impact on health.   After toxicological health assessment, the data can be used to derive regulations to prevent exposure to pollutants and to monitor a reduction of this exposure. The objective of the first European HBM pilot study DEMOCOPHES was to produce comparative data on the exposure to pollutants in European countries through application of standardised rules and guidelines. It also aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of conducting standardised human biomonitoring in Europe.

Information on the research collaborations:
In order to make comparative measurements of Europeans’ exposure to pollutants, experts from 27 European countries developed a joint testing scheme in the COPHES project. This scheme was tested for the first time throughout Europe in the associated DEMOCOPHES project. Testing for exposure to mercury, cadmium, cotinine and phthalates was done on the hair and urine samples of 120 mother-child pairs in both urban and rural regions in 17 European countries throughout Europe between September and December 2011. The children were aged between 6 and 11 and the mothers no older than 45. The pollutants were selected based on their harmful impact and because there are health-related assessment standards for these substances. Germany was represented through management at UBA. The test results of the other countries are due for publication by the end of January 2013, after which time a comprehensive comparison of country data will be possible.

COPHES: Consortium to Perform Human Biomonitoring on a European Scale. Funding for COPHES was provided under the 7th Research Framework Programme of the EU (DG Research - No. 244237).

DEMOCOPHES: Demonstration of a study to coordinate and perform human biomonitoring on a European Scale. DEMOCOPHES was funded by LIFE+ 2009 (DG Environment - LIFE09 ENV/BE/000410); additional funding in Germany was provided by the Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (FKZ  3709 62 210).



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