UBA’s researchers examine morning urine and blood samples to determine the degree of child and adolescent exposure to certain environmental pollutants. The pollutants may have had various different sources or uptake pathways. What is crucial in these human biomonitoring tests is that there is a specific method of analysis to trace pollutants or their metabolites in both urine and blood.
GerES V tested urine and blood for plasticisers, parabens (used as preservatives), cotinine (tobacco degradation product), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs (a product of combustion processes), various metals, per- and polyfluorinated compounds, or PFAS (used in many products), and long-lived polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB).
Some of the substances tested have an effect similar to hormones and can encourage the development of cancer or trigger allergies.
2-MBT in urine (Murawski et al. 2020) CIT/MIT in urine (Murawski et al. 2020) Lysmeral in urine (Murawski et al. 2020) Benzol and acrylamide in urine (Schwedler et al. 2021) TOTM, BHT and 4-MBC in urine (Murawski et al. 2020)
Plasticisers in urine
Plasticisers are substances which are added to brittle materials to make them soft, flexible and elastic. Phthalates are a common group of plastics. They are used in soft PVC, for instance in toys, food packaging wrap, floor coverings, hoses, seals or floor coverings. Some phthalates have hormone-like properties and are classified as reprotoxic.
Because of their health risks the use of some phthalates has been greatly restricted since early 2015 and may only be used with special authorisation. Many phthalates and their substitutes are nevertheless still in use.
Phthalates are degraded relatively quickly in the body. Their metabolites are traceable in urine. GerES V tracked the concentrations of metabolites from more than ten different phthalates (e.g. DEP, BBzP, DnBP, DiBP, DEHP) in the urine of children and adolescents. A few phthalate substitutes such as DINCH and DPHP were also be tracked since their use is becoming more and more common.
Phthalates in urine (Schwedler et al. 2020) DINCH and DPHP in urine (Schwedler et al. 2020 DEHTP in urine (Schwedler et al. 2020)
Parabens in urine
Parabens are used primarily as preservatives in foods, medicines and cosmetic products. Parabens in cosmetics are taken up through the skin whereas oral absorption is the common path for food and medicines. Animal tests have shown that several parabens act similarly to hormones.
Short and long-chained and branched parabens were being tracked in the urine of children and adolescents.
Parabens in urine (Murawski et al. 2020)
Cotinine in urine
Tobacco smoking is still widespread in Germany. Second-hand smoke contains more than 70 pollutants and is inhaled involuntarily by non-smokers. Passive smoking in childhood is associated with a wide range of health problems and increases the risk of various diseases such as bronchitis and asthma.
Because nicotine can no longer be detected in urine after just a few hours, exposure to smoke or second-hand smoke is determined by the presence of the nicotine degradation product cotinine. Cotinine can be tracked in urine for one to two days after exposure, and even longer in non-smokers and children. Publications to study results on cotinine in urine are planned.
PAH in urine
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are produced when the combustion of organic material such as wood, coal, or oil is incomplete. They also occur in used motor oils, tar and soot. Many PAH are carcinogenic, may cause harm to the unborn child or impair fertility. There is evidence that children react more sensitively to PAH than adults.
PAH in urine (Murawski et al. 2020)
Pyrrolidones in urine
Pyrrolidones are used as solvents in many technical applications. Child and adolescent exposure can occur through contact with paint and graffiti removers and indoors through the use of varnishes or from floor coverings.
The pyrrolidone NMP has been classified as mutagenic or reprotoxic in humans and is therefore increasingly being replaced by the pyrrolidone NEP. The latter, however, has toxicological properties very similar to NMP.
Various NMP and NEP metabolites can be tracked in urine and indicate exposure.
NMP and NEP in urine (Schmied-Tobies et al. 2021)
Metals in urine and blood
Some metals – iron, zinc, copper – are vital to the human organism, whereas others can cause damage in even small amounts: cadmium and mercury, for example. The body absorbs metals from food, drinking water, tobacco smoke, and from soil and dust particles. Publications to study results on metals in urine are planned.
Mercury in urine
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment but is also a by-product of industrial processes. Thermometers used to be made using mercury; nowadays it is used in energy-saving lamps. Mercury vapour escapes if they burst. Exposure to mercury can also occur by eating fish or from amalgam tooth fillings.
Chronic mercury exposure can cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and stomach.
GerES V examined the urine of children and adolescents for mercury concentrations, which would mainly reflect the absorption of inorganic mercury.
Cadmium in urine and blood
Just like mercury, cadmium occurs naturally in the environment. Soil and bodies of water contain high levels of cadmium if they are near industrial metals mines or battery and paint manufacturing plants.
The major source of exposure to cadmium, however, is tobacco smoke and second-hand smoke. Foods which contain cadmium can also be a factor of exposure.
Chronic exposure to cadmium can cause kidney damage and is also thought to be carcinogenic.
GerES V tracked cadmium in both urine and blood. Whereas cadmium remains in the blood for a short time only, its presence in urine reflects accumulated, lifelong exposure.
Per- and polyfluorinated compounds in blood
GerES V tracked twelve per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFAS) in blood. PFAS are persistent synthetic substances which accumulate in the environment, the food chain and in the human body. The most well known among them are perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOS is used in oil, water and stain-repellent coatings in textiles, food packaging materials, and kitchen utensils. PFOA is also used in the textiles industry as well as the electronics, semiconductor, and aerospace industries.
In long-term animal tests PFOA and PFOS favour the development of tumours. Some PFAS are also presumed to impair fertility.
PFAS in blood (Duffek et al. 2020)
Polychlorinated biphenyls in blood
Although the production and use of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) has been banned for decades in Germany, their persistence and accumulation in the environment can mean they are absorbed through contaminated food. PCB are neuro- and immunotoxic and may cause cancer in higher concentrations. GerES V tracked seven different PCB compounds in blood.
PCB and OCP in blood (Bandow et al. 2020)