Human biomonitoring (HBM) aims to understand people’s exposure to pollutants by measuring human tissues and fluids (blood, hair, urine, etc). Using HBM data may provide links with possible health effects and provide options for policy measures to reduce exposure. HBM outcomes and data should be effectively used to support public health policies as well as environmental policies.
HBM can help policy makers to fine tune or even launch new environment and health policies. It allows them to identify priorities and provides an early warning on potential threats to human health. It can also help them to assess how effective policies such as the EU’s new chemicals legislation REACH are in reducing exposure.
Biomonitoring: a reality check on health in a hazardous environment, explains Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance, Brussels, Genon K Jensen
Human biomonitoring measures the levels of different chemicals in human tissues and fluids. The tests are usually done on blood or urine samples, but mercury traces can be tested in a small lock of hair.
Biomonitoring is important for two reasons. First, it helps to check people’s everyday exposure to pollutants. Today, approximately 70,000-100,000 synthetic chemicals are on the market and some are building up in the human body. A few are suspected of having unknown long-term health effects and are inadequately controlled. Second, biomonitoring can show where stronger action is required to reduce exposure to man-made hazardous chemicals.
A biomonitoring programme can provide a baseline measurement, and follow-up monitoring can show whether levels of exposure have fallen after a new control regime has been introduced.
Some countries have already biomonitored certain pollutants in targeted populations. This has successfully demonstrated that a policy change can reduce people’s exposure, for example, biomonitoring children for traces of lead has shown that levels fall dramatically after a ban on leaded petrol is introduced.
However, these projects have been costly and their value limited because there is no harmonised strategy that allows comparisons between countries. The European Union favours introducing a Europe-wide initiative to enable such comparisons. It believes that biomonitoring is ’the key to integrating human health considerations into the environment policy decision-making and evaluation’. Biomonitoring is a priority of the European Union Environment and Health Action Plan 2004-2010, and it is hoped that a pilot project will be launched in 2009.
In the UK and several other EU countries, the WWF ’Detox’ campaign brought attention to the findings of small-scale biomonitoring. Tests on 350 people, including grandmothers, their daughters and grand-daughters, showed that all had synthetic chemicals in their blood. Some were ’hormone disrupting chemicals’, which evidence suggests play a role in the rising incidence of certain cancers and falling fertility rates. The Prague Declaration, signed by doctors and scientists from all over the world, calls for a precautionary approach to hormone disrupting chemicals.
The Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL) monitors policy developments in relation to health and the environment at the European level. It favours the swift elimination from the market of all hazardous chemicals in line with the goal of Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. Specifically, SAICM calls for chemicals to be produced and used in ways that minimise significant adverse impacts on the environment and human health by 2020.
HEAL believes that the EU biomonitoring initiative can contribute to this goal so long as the programme is properly funded and used to drive precautionary policy-making. HEAL would like one or more synthetic hormone- mimicking chemicals to be tracked, and important ethical and communication issues to be effectively managed. For example, announcements that breast milk contains certain synthetic chemicals may inadvertently discourage women from breastfeeding. Results must always be given in conjunction with the recommendations of the World Health Organization that every child should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.
This article was published in the Public Service Review Science & Technology - Issue 2. (Information portal for the UK public sector).
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