“We need a sustainable Human Biomonitoring system for Europe to understand which chemicals impact health, to which extent we are exposed to and how we can protect ourselves”
Dr. Marike Kolossa-Gehring
Dr. Marike Kolossa-Gehring is the coordinator of HBM4EU.
The European Environment Agency interviewed Dr Marike Kolossa-Gehring, the coordinator of HBM4EU.
Dr Kolossa-Gehring joined the German Environment Agency in 1992. Since 2004, she has led the section on “toxicology, health related environmental monitoring”, where she is responsible for the human biomonitoring studies of the German Environmental Survey and the German Specimen Bank, which form the basis of the German system for health-related environmental monitoring.
The mission of HBM4EU is to provide science-based evidence for chemical policy development and thereby improving human health. How are you doing this?
Our entire research programme has been designed to answer relevant policy questions, to support the regulation of pollutants of high concern. These policy questions have been defined together in a fruitful cooperation between EU institutions and national policy makers, Scientific agencies and HBM4EU partners. We decided to share all data with national and EU policy makers as soon as they are quality assured – to ensure that they are used for regulatory decision-making as soon as possible. Additionally, we have established a close cooperation between all involved parties to enable us to react on short notice to demands emerging from the policy processes.
Trust-based cooperation and data sharing are key to reaching our goals. This is something we have done very well, and something that I am personally very proud of.
120 partners, 30 countries, 74 million euros, 33,614 samples collected and analysed from 18 chemical substances…that seems a great challenge. How was the daunting task of coordinating this large initiative?
The major challenge is to effectively steer such an enormously large, diverse and excellent consortium, in which an unbelievable number of interesting ideas, proposals and research plans are generated nearly every day. Steering is key to ensure that all our exciting research activities are focused on HBM4EU objectives and end up generating data, drawing conclusions and making recommendations to support environment, health, and chemical policies and, thus, to contribute to improving the health and wellbeing of European citizens.
What are the main challenges when coordinating human biomonitoring initiatives in Europe at national and EU level?
In HBM4EU, we view challenges as a chance to develop joint solutions. First, to identify the relevant policy makers and engage them in our complex and challenging process. Second, to secure the co-funding for our ambitious work at national level – especially for those countries that have only recently started human biomonitoring studies. Third, to include all relevant parties of interest at national and EU level without overburdening them with meetings and time-consuming requests. Of course, there were many more. However, the effort of dealing with challenges is always outweighed by the benefit and the pleasure of cooperating across this highly relevant network.
Why is HBM4EU so unique?
HBM4EU is innovative in many ways. On the structural side, we have built up a network that links science to policy and has established new ways of effective cooperation between policy makers and scientists, creating an excellent basis for further steps. Additionally, this cooperation has increased our understanding of each other’s views and needs. On the scientific side, we have produced harmonised approaches and a network of laboratories for EU wide comparable studies, and developed methodologies, such as the suspect and non-target screening techniques, as well as systematically derived effect markers and new methods for the risk assessment of chemical mixtures.
Are we living in a world full of harmful substances?
Only in 2020, about 230 million tons of chemicals hazardous to health have been consumed in the EU, including over 34 million tons of carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic chemicals. Many of these find their way into our bodies.
And the consequences are…
Chemicals can have an impact on health or cause severe diseases. Some chemicals can cause cancer, and affect the immune, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and cardiovascular systems, increase vulnerability to diseases or have negative effects on neurodevelopment.
Very difficult to eliminate them from our daily lives…what can we do?
We can do a lot! HBM4EU makes recommendations on how to reduce our personal body burden and exposure – based on new findings from HBM4EU data. In general, eating seasonal and local, if possible organic food, reducing consumption of predatory fish, improving ventilation of the indoor environment and taking informed consumer decisions are effective measures that can be applied by everyone.
And in a more systemic way…?
We need a sustainable Human Biomonitoring system for Europe to understand to what extent we are exposed, which chemicals impact health, and how we can protect ourselves. Implementing control and reduction measures is one way to prevent exposure to hazardous substances, another way to assess the effectiveness of our European regulations. We can also investigate the impact of complex chemical mixtures in our bodies. Maybe we need to reconsider a risk assessment of chemicals which is based primarily on a single substance approach.
18 chemical substances are being studied under HBM4EU. Pesticides, mercury, phthalates, bisphenol, flame retardants…. What are scientists discovering?
Many of our scientific results are coming out now and over the next months. A striking discovery for me is that we have seen that about 20% of the adolescents in our EU wide HBM studies exceed the so-called Health-Based Guidance Values for perfluorinated compounds (PFC), a large group of manufactured compounds that are widely used to make consumer products more resistant to stains, grease, and water. When exposure in the population is higher than the health-based guidance value, it cannot be guaranteed – based on current scientific evidence – that there will not be any health effects. In my view this provides strong support for the initiative of six European countries to ban the whole group of PFCs, especially given that persistent substances can accumulate over life time.
Some phthalates that are toxic for reproduction have been strictly regulated in the EU. Levels of regulated phthalates decreased in the population. However, HBM4EU data also reveal that both regulated and unregulated phthalates can be found in up to 100% of our study participants, depending on the compound. Potential health effects were assessed using a single substance approach and, therefore, do not yet consider the additive effect of multiple substances being present in the body simultaneously. Results from our mixture case studies show that there is a health risk due to the combined action of these anti-estrogenic substances.
This raises the question of whether we should see a mandate for action to further restrict the use of plastic so close to the human body that plasticizers can enter the body? HBM4EU time trend analyses have shown the positive effects of regulating hazardous chemicals.
Another very interesting finding from our effect marker research is that exposure to Bisphenol A is associated with cognitive problems in adolescent boys.
In adolescent boys…. So, are women and men not affected in the same way?
Exactly! Women and men are not only physiologically different. They may also have different habits and nutritional preferences that affect their uptake of different chemical substances. In every population we find higher exposed subgroups – in the case of PFCs, for example, boys are exposed to slightly higher levels than girls. For some substances we did not observe different exposure levels and for some others, we found higher levels in girls. Sex is always an important influencing factor that helps us elucidate exposure conditions and sources.
Can this data be compared amongst countries?
That is one of the great steps that HBM4EU has made – national data from the studies participating in the joint HBM4EU survey can be directly compared because they had to pass a demanding quality control programme. This is the basis for making regional and geographical comparisons. What we can already conclude is that exposure levels vary across Europe due to a number of reasons and influencing factors – clear evidence that we need EU-wide data to support chemical regulations that can protect all European citizens.
Every person living in Europe has 200 to 300 chemicals in their body and so there is a need to investigate the effect of mixtures. How is HBM4EU addressing this matter?
All humans are exposed to complex mixtures of chemicals that are not a physiological component of our body.
The impact of these chemical mixtures on human health is so important that in HBM4EU we choose three approaches to investigate the problem. One is to analyse common mixtures in European citizens to further investigate the hazards posed by mixtures. The second approach is to identify the health effects of mixtures in case studies, for example we investigated the effects of metals on kidney function, as well as the effects of antiandrogenic compounds on reproduction. The third approach is to establish harmonised non-targeted human biomonitoring methods to get a more complete picture of all the pollutants present in the body. From all these activities we have developed recommendations for dealing with mixtures in risk assessment, research and regulation.
People need to be aware of …
…the fact, that chemicals in their bodies have an effect on their and their loved ones’ health and wellbeing. This underlines the importance of high quality, targeted, easily accessible information on how people can keep their chemical burden as low as possible. This also helps people to identify issues and raise their voice to policy makers.
How data will be communicated to the public?
We have produced a number of tailor-made communication products for citizens. Examples include videos, factsheets, infographics on the different HBM4EU’s priority substances and can be downloaded from our website. We are also active on social media.
And what about the policy-makers? What policy recommendations might HBM4EU provide to those in order to improve the development of health policies?
HBM4EU might propose additional risk reduction measures for substances such as mercury, or recommendations on how to integrate the risk of chemical mixtures in the standard risk assessment schemes, for example by the use of a mixture assessment factor of 10. HBM4EU will also draw conclusions as to whether current risk assessment procedures are suited to the goal of protecting people against the health risks of pollutants, such as PFCs or reprotoxic plasticisers.
HBM4EU has already fed results and data into chemical-specific regulatory processes such as consultation processes on plasticisers and persistent organic pollutants led by the European Commission, the European Chemical Agency, the European Food Safety Authority, and Secretariat of the Minamata Convention at the United Nations Environment Programme. With our data, we are producing indicators and the baseline against which the success of the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the Farm to Fork Strategy and other objectives under the European Green Deal can be measured. We have already identified gaps in the effectiveness and mechanisms of current European regulations and the respective risk management for which we will propose solutions.
We have also contributed to setting up the next research agendas at national and EU level.
What is next?
We are currently in the exciting phase where we are harvesting the fruits of our work, with new results coming out daily.
HBM4EU will end in June 2022, but funding is expected to continue through the proposed ‘Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals’ under Horizon Europe.
Most of our HBM4EU partners will be involved in that new project, this time under the coordination of our esteemed French partner, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety – Anses.
But first we will present our key scientific findings on 27-28 April 2022 at our final conference in Brussels highlighting how these results can be transferred to policy. Don’t miss it!