Human biomonitoring: A tool of European environmental and health policy
Human biomonitoring (HBM) is a tool to record human exposure to pollutants and is used in environmental and occupational medicine. In human biomonitoring, human body fluids and tissues are examined for contamination with pollutants. Thus, for example, the levels of lead in the blood or urine of individuals or populations are analysed.
European environment and health policy attaches great importance to this tool for the determination of the environmental burden on the population. However, previous or ongoing HBM studies in several European countries deal with different issues; the procedures used are not uniform, with the consequence that the data generated are often not comparable. For this reason, in 2004 the European Commission declared the “development of a coherent approach to biomonitoring in Europe” as one of the targets of its “Environment and Health 2004-2010” action plan.
From the spring of 2005, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment sought professional advice from a group of experts from various disciplines from 17 member states of the European Community plus Croatia. This group, the “Implementation Group on HBM” (IG-HBM), was given technical support by the EU project ESBIO (“Expert team to Support BIOmonitoring in Europe”). IG-HBM and ESBIO developed proposals for policy and procedural protocols for the harmonised implementation of a pan-European HBM programme. The implementation group also had the mandate to support communication between national policies and the European Commission. The UBA participated actively in both working groups.
The European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU)
To achieve the ojective defined in the 7th Environmental Action Programme, the European Commission funded the "European Human Biomonitoring Initiative" (HBM4EU) project. One aim of the project was the consolidation of already existing data and the alignment and implementation of joint studies. The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) was leading the consortium. The project involved 120 partners from 30 countries - 24 EU Member States as well as Norway, Iceland, Israel, United Kingdom, Switzerland and North Macedonia. HBM4EU focused on the generation of a pan-European network to improve the knowledge and evidence base for the Union's environmental and chemicals policy. To this end, so-called "National Hubs" were set up in each country who coordinated activities in order to create a sustainable robust Human Biomonitoring platform at European level.
The initiative aimed to contribute directly to improving the health and well-being of all citizens by studying how exposure to environmental chemicals affects the health of different groups of the population - for example children, pregnant women, foetuses and workers. It also examined the extent to which factors such as behaviour, lifestyle and socio-economic status influence internal exposure to environmental chemicals in the EU population. This knowledge was (and still will be) fed directly into policy-making to improve the evidence base for the Union's environmental and chemicals policies in order to reduce health-related chemical exposure and protect human health.
The HBM4EU project ran for five and a half years - from 2017 to 2022 - with the aim of establishing a sustainable programme.
COPHES and DEMOCOPHES
Since December 2009, this work has been continued by COPHES (Consortium to Perform Human biomonitoring on a European Scale). COPHES is a working group which brings together 35 research teams from 24 EU Member States plus Croatia, Norway and Switzerland. The Consortium will continue the work of harmonising human biomonitoring in Europe by working out specific common procedures for the conduct of HBM studies in Europe. The individual Member States will then merely translate these instructions and adapt them to country-specific conditions.
A further step towards harmonisation was taken with the creation of procedures for the implementation of a first pan-European pilot project (DEMOCOPHES). In this pilot study, 120 children between 6 and 11 years of age and their mothers in each of the 17 participating Member States were tested for various environmental pollutants. The content of the heavy metal cadmium and the nicotine breakdown product cotinine was measured in urine. In addition, tests were carried out to detect metabolites of the main plasticisers for plastics, phthalates. In addition, mercury content was determined by testing a sample of head hair.
The pilot study offered experience for the implementation of harmonised HBM studies in many European countries and has paved the way for decisions on the feasibility of a more complex European HBM study. A pan-European HBM study could help provide comprehensive policy recommendations to reduce the pollution burden on the citizens of Europe.
The project ended in November 2012. Prior to that date the participating countries had tested the harmonised procedures (instruments) and developed a perspective for a pan-EU implementation of HBM as an instrument of environmental and health protection.
Participation of the Federal Environment Agency
Just as they did in the implementation group and the ESBIO project, employees of the Federal Environment Agency collaborated in the COPHES and DEMOCOPHES projects. They were able to call on many years of extensive experience of population-related human biomonitoring: In Germany over the past 30 years there have been repeated environmental surveys, that is to say, representative studies of the exposure of the population to environmental pollutants. Additional contributions, particularly in respect of the storage of the human samples, were provided by the UBA working group on the basis of its experience with the environmental specimen bank, the second large-scale instrument for the assessment of the exposure to pollutants of people and the environment in Germany.