HBM4EU: European Human Biomonitoring Initiative

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Blood sample
Source: Guido Grochowski / Fotolia.com

To capture the availability of Human Biomonitoring data in the EU member states and to better understand the health impacts of exposure to harmful substances, the EU Commission is funding the project "European Human Biomonitoring Initiative" (HBM4EU) with over 74 million euros within the framework of the "Horizon 2020" funding programme.

Table of Contents

The European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU) aims at consolidating existing data and implementing joint studies to generate knowledge on the safe management of chemicals and thus protect human health in Europe. HBM4EU uses Human Biomonitoring to assess human exposure to chemicals in Europe, to better understand the associated health impacts and to improve chemical risk assessment.

UBA has taken over the coordination of the consortium of 120 partners from 30 countries. The consortium brings together European Human Biomonitoring expertise from 25 EU Member States plus Norway, Iceland, Israel, Northern Macedonia, and Switzerland. HBM4EU focuses on the development of a pan-European network. Empirical data and results of the joint studies should be communicated and integrated into the European environment and health policy to improve targeted and effective policy measures to reduce human exposure to chemicals.

The long-term goal is a joint European programme to monitor and scientifically assess exposure of EU citizens to chemicals and potential health effects, and to improve the corresponding legal regulations.


The role of Human Biomonitoring in the assessment and management of chemical risks

Environmental chemicals are used in a wide range of products - including medical, veterinary, agricultural and pest control products - and offer numerous benefits to society. At the same time, hazardous environmental chemicals have harmful effects on human health and the environment, cause costs to health systems and lead to reduced environmental quality. Hence, the EU 7th Environment Action Programme aims to “safeguard the Union's citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and well-being” and “to “improve of the knowledge and evidence base for the Union's environmental policy”.

At European level, there is a lack of harmonised information on the exposure of citizens to environmental chemicals and their interaction with other concurrent environment-related pressures and health effects. This makes reliable risk assessment and management of environmental chemicals difficult. We are exposed to a complex mix of chemicals in our daily lives - through the environment, consumer products, cosmetics, food and drinking water and at work. For many environmental chemicals, the effects on health associated with life-long exposure are unknown. In addition, knowledge of the health impacts of chemical mixtures is limited.

Human Biomonitoring (HBM) enables us to measure the extent to which the population is exposed to or affected by environmental chemicals. This involves measuring either the substances themselves, their metabolites or biomarkers of health effects in body fluids or tissues. Information on human exposure can then be combined with data on the sources of environmental chemicals and epidemiological studies.


Objectives of the Joint European Programme HBM4EU

Key objectives are:

  • Harmonised methods at EU level
  • Provision of existing national data, collection of new HBM data
  • Linking these data with data on external exposure, identification of exposure pathways
  • Development of new methods, also for HBM at work
  • Evidence on causal links between exposure and health
  • Answering questions from EU authorities and contribute to the improvement of policy making / risk assessment of chemicals
  • Providing information to policy makers and the public on health risks from exposure to pollutants
  • Establishing a sustainable HBM infrastructure throughout Europe

To achieve these objectives, the consortium aims to harmonise Human Biomonitoring initiatives in 30 countries, drawing on existing expertise and building new capacities. In each country, so-called “National Hubs” have been or will be established to coordinate activities with the ultimate aim of creating a robust Human Biomonitoring platform at the European level.

The initiative contributes directly to improving the health and well-being of all citizens by studying how exposure to environmental chemicals affects the health of different groups - e.g. children, pregnant women, foetuses and workers. It also examines 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 is directly fed into policy-making to reduce chemical exposure and protect human health.

HBM4EU runs for five years - from 2017 to 2021 - and aims to establish a sustainable programme. The HBM4EU consortium had identified priority substance groups that were in the focus of activities in 2017 as part of the preparation of the work plan for the first year. A second prioritisation of substance groups was carried out in 2018 - also to respond to political needs dynamically. A third prioritisation shall be carried out in 2020, in preparation for follow-up activities.

The first year of the project was mainly aimed at collecting and aligning existing HBM data for the prioritised substance groups , making suitable data available on the Information Platform for Chemical Monitoring (IPChEM) and determining which current policy issues can be addressed with the existing data. By this means, HBM4EU could assess the extent to which a robust database of comparable HBM data from the EU can provide answers to key policy questions.


First prioritisation and selected substance groups

While developing priorities for the first work plan for 2017, the consortium has produced a list of substance groups. Both national and EU specific policy needs for knowledge on chemical exposure and health impacts have been taken into account. As a first step, substances for which knowledge is needed to support current EU policymaking were identified through a close dialogue with the EU Policy Board. Input from the national level was provided through a steering committee composed of national representatives.

The set of criteria includes questions such as whether a substance is of concern to human health, whether there is evidence of exposure to humans and/or the environment at EU level and whether there are outstanding policy issues. The financial and technical feasibility of substance monitoring was also a criterion.

This first priority setting resulted in nine groupings of substances which formed the main activities in 2017 and 2018.

The first list of prioritised substance groups includes

  • Phthalates and Hexamoll® DINCH,
  • Bisphenols,
  • per- and polyfluorinated compounds,
  • Flame retardant,
  • Cadmium and chromium,
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),
  • the group of aniline,
  • chemical mixtures and
  • emerging substances

Building on the experience of the first round of prioritisation and the establishment of a transparent procedure for setting priorities, HBM4EU has further developed the prioritisation strategy. The HBM4EU Governing Board, which includes high-level representatives from all participating countries, has endorsed this process. The second list of prioritised substance groups was agreed at a joint meeting of the HBM4EU Management Board and the EU Policy Board in March 2018 and was also confirmed by the Governing Board.

The second list of priority substance groups includes

  • Arsenic
  • Acrylamide
  • Aprotic solvents
  • Diisocyanates
  • Lead & Lead compounds
  • Mercury & organic mercury compounds
  • Mycotoxins
  • Pesticides , including pyrethroid
  • UV Filter – Benzophenone

During the five years of the project, further coordination on priority substance groups will be carried out. However, the substance groups prioritised in a third round will not be examined within HBM4EU but will rather serve to prepare follow-up activities. For the third round the consortium is building on the experience gained from the previous priority-setting processes, with a refined approach designed to further increase transparency and facilitate accessibility for stakeholders.


Conclusions of the European Council on Chemicals of 26 June 2019

In its conclusions, the European Council recognised HBM4EU at the interface between science and European chemicals policy. It encourages a similar research programme on environmental monitoring and on improving the exchange and use of monitoring data collected locally, regionally, nationally and EU-wide - both between countries and between policy areas (e.g. water, chemicals, air quality, biomonitoring, health, etc.) and relevant institutions. The Council would like to see these activities continue under the new "Horizon Europe" programme. In particular, the Member States and the Commission should encourage the development of an appropriate infrastructure to make data findable, accessible, interoperable and usable.

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