Biomonitoring in health & environment policy-making

Biomonitoring involves taking samples of blood, tissue, urine or hair to detect the presence of certain substances in the human body. The process is today used by environmental campaigners, lobbyists and the EU Commission as a tool to assess human exposure to pollution as part of health and environmental policy-making. However, the lack of scientific knowledge on the paths taken by the pollutants and their actual risk for human health is making biomonitoring a controversial issue.

Analyses of blood, tissue, urine or hair are today commonly used to detect presence of substances in the human body. Examples include breathalysers to measure the alcohol intake of drivers or blood samples taken on athletes to detect possible doping substances. The sampling and testing processes used to collect this type of data is generally referred to as biological monitoring, or biomonitoring.

Biomonitoring techniques have been considerably refined over the past years. Very small levels of any kind of substance can now be easily detected in the human body. It is becoming a common tool for decision-makers in the health and environmental field.

Biomonitoring is today used to measure the presence in the human body of pollutants which are present in air, water and the environment at large (outdoors and indoors). These range from transport exhausts to common consumer products and household appliances (frying pans, children's toys, solvents used in paints, etc.). When high levels are found, legislators may decide to ban a product or restrict its usage to applications where it presents lower risks for human health.

The central issue concerning the use of biomonitoring in political decisions is how to interpret the data collected. Some argue the "mere" presence of a toxic substance in human blood samples is not enough to ban products which brings jobs to people, profits to companies and which makes the lives of consumers easier. Other say the presence of even very small amounts of man-made toxic substances in humans is enough to justify a restriction on their use based on the risks they could pose to human health.

The precautionary principle lies at the heart of the controversy in this debate. But all parties at least agree on one thing: there is a lack of data relating to human exposure to environmental pollutants. And therefore, there is also a lack of knowledge on the actual risk they could represent.

As little is currently known about the routes taken by those pollutants from the environment to the human body, filling the knowledge gap was identified by the Commission as one of the first steps in its environment and health action plan adopted in 2004 as part of the SCALE strategy (see EURACTIV,   11 June 2004 and LinksDossier on SCALE).

The following questions related to biomonitoring are currently subject to further research:

  • Sensitive population (children, elderly) and subpopulations (along occupational lines, geographical location or socioeconomic status)
  • Exposure pathways
  • Levels at which exposure leads to actual health risks (risk interpretation)  

Biomonitoring studies currently used in the Commission's SCALE strategy have focused on children and covered mainly heavy metals (mercury, lead), asthma/allergies, dioxin/PCB and endocrine disrupters.

The Commission is attempting to coordinate European research efforts as a first step to enable more meaningful results through a more effective use of resources.

Biomonitoring is becoming controversial today because it is used by politicians and environmental campaigners to justify calls for a ban or restriction on certain products, including chemicals and petrochemicals. By contrast, the industries which could be affected by such a decision point to lack of data and scientific knowledge on the potential risk that their products could pose for human health through the environment.

The European Chemicals Industry Council (Cefic), advocates a risk-based approach to policy-making (see related EURACTIV LinksDossier) supported by sound scientific data. According to Cefic, biomonitoring is "a promising public health tool" but it warns that the techniques "should not be misused". Cefic points out that biomonotoring only provides "a one-off measurement" which "does not provide any information of whether the levels vary over time or what the source of exposure was. On their own, these measurements do not provide enough information to determine risk or health effects," Cefic says. Moreover, most of the chemicals measured in the WWF blood tests relate to chemicals or pesticides which are either already banned or controlled by rigourous legislation, Cefic points out. "The presence of trace amounts of chemicals in the body should bot be used as a pretext for demanding tougher controls than necessary," said Cefic's Colin Humphris.

The WWF has conducted blood tests on MEPs (see EURACTIV,  22 Apr. 2004), ministers ( 21 Oct. 2004) and commissioners ( 7 Nov. 2003) as part of its DetoX campaign against chemical contamination. The results showed the presence, on average, of 30 to 40 man-made chemicals in the blood samples collected. WWF argues that the very presence of those dangerous chemicals justifies a ban or a limitation to their use in common household appliances and food packaging (fire-resistant textiles used for sofas, non-stick frying pan coating, tin can lining, etc.). WWF points to the lack of data on human exposure to chemicals, and therefore to a lack of knowledge as to the risk they represent, to justify tighter regulation on those products based on the precautionary principle.

Some scientists have argued that exposure to toxic substances and risk to humans are two separate phenomenon. In an interview with British daily The IndependentProf. John Henry - a toxicologist at Imperial College, London - said the chemicals found in the WWF testings were in "extremely low levels [...], well below the thresholds where they are likely to cause immediate harm. The bottom line is that evidence of presence is not evidence of harm." Speaking about the WWF biomonitoring for the DetoX campaign, he said: "It's good that we know these things and that someone is alerting us to them, but it's no good doing so in an alarmist fashion."

Other scientists wonder how dozens of different chemicals could be found in people who lead healthy lifestyles. Researchers at the Environmental Working Group - a US group of scientists - say it is "increasingly evident that exposure to industrial chemicals and pesticides are contributing to a portion of the steady increase in some health problems" experienced by the population. The biomonitoring tests they carried out found, on average for every person tested: 53 known carcinogens, 62 nervous systems toxicants and 55 reproductive toxicants (endocrine disrupters). "Adverse health effects from low dose exposure are occuring in the population," said the EWG.

The Commission itself used WWF's blood testing to justify its proposal for reviewing the EU's chemicals policy, REACH (see EURACTIV,  7 Nov. 2003). In its  press release on this issue, the Commission stated: "Despite intense research on some of the chemicals, there is a general lack of knowledge about the effects on human health and the environment of more than 99 % of the total volume of chemicals on the market. It is therefore essential to systematically examine all chemicals used in significant quantities in the EU."

Voting on the report by Frédérique Ries (ALDE, Belgium) on the environment and health action plan 2004-2010, the European Parliament clearly expressed itself in favour of the precautionary principle. "The absence of scientific certainty and the need to carry out additional research [...] cannot be used as an excuse for delaying the introduction of essential and urgent measures to reduce children's and adults' exposure to environmental pollution," the Parliament stated in its final resolution. The Parliament further called for stepping up preventive action against specific substances including six products from the phthalate family, chlorinated solvents, mercury, cadmium and pesticides (see EURACTIV, 25 Feb. 2005).

Responding to the MEPs vote in Parliament, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said that biomonitoring would "play an essential role" and would bring the real value-added to the action plan. "The precautionary principle is at the core of environment policy and it will continue to be the cornerstone of our action," Dimas assured MEPs.

  • 2004-2006: Commission and member states to develop common research protocols
  • 2006: Lead and mercury are the two most likely candidates for a first EU-wide biomonitoring pilot project
  • By 2007, Commissioner Dimas said sufficient progress should have been made in establishing information systems on environmentally-triggered health disorders

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