European citizens of all ages are exposed to a wide range of chemicals through their diet, their environment, the use of consumer products and at the work place. Citizens are consumers of products containing chemicals, voters with an influence on policy directions and individuals with body burdens of chemicals and environmental pollutants. They therefore have a personal interest in the scientific results produced under HBM4EU and may be affected by any policy measures based on these results. Indeed, HBM4EU results are co-produced with citizens who participate in sampling exercises and agree to the use of their data in research.
The involvement of citizens in the prioritisation of substances for research is therefore important in ensuring the legitimacy and credibility of the HBM4EU project. In addition to the scientific criteria used to assess evidence regarding the extent of exposure to chemicals and the associated health effects, it is also important to capture societal concerns regarding the safety of chemicals in everyday use, chemicals in the workplace and environmental pollutants.
With the explicit aim of understanding public concern regarding chemicals and capturing the perspectives of non-experts when prioritising chemicals for research, HBM4EU undertook two outreach activities with European citizens.
These included an online questionnaire and a focus group with members of the general public. The aim of both inquiries was to evaluate citizens’ views on the short list of nominated substances that was subject to prioritisation and so take a litmus test regarding the priorities of the European public.
The research questions guiding the inquiries were:
- Which chemicals on the short list of nominated substances are known to citizens?
- Which chemicals and exposure pathways concern them, which ones do they rate as hazardous?
- Which areas of their daily lives are affected?
- How would they like to be informed about chemicals and environmental pollutants?
- What are their expectations and concerns regarding human biomonitoring and the prevention of chemical exposure and environmental pollution?
- Which preferences and ideas do they have regarding tackling the problem of chemical exposure?
The results of these two outreach activities are summarised below and documented in a report on HBM4EU outreach to European citizens.
Online survey with European citizens on chemicals
An online survey was conducted with European citizens on human biomonitoring. The aim of the survey was to gain information of the interests, needs, and questions of European citizens in order to take them into account within HBM4EU. The evaluation was carried out by questionnaire survey. It was not the aim to have a representative sample of the European general public, but rather to capture a flavour of the main concerns. During February and March 2018, a questionnaire was made available online, in English and German.
In total, there were questionnaires from 341 participants, 214 English-speaking and 127 German-speaking. The participants were on average 41.7 years old. It mainly reached people with a university degree (88.6%). Two people only had a compulsory school leaving certificate.
89.4% of the participants expressed concerned about chemicals in their daily life.
With regard to chemical exposure, chemicals in consumer products and pesticides in food were regarded as most important. 96.8% of the participants responded that chemicals in products have hazardous properties.
Participants considered chemical compounds in drinking water and food as extremely dangerous.
In terms of the role of HBM4EU in raising public awareness, three quarters of the participants requested further information about the initiative via channels such as websites, social media and scientific publications.
Focus group with members of the public in Austria
A focus group on chemicals held in Austria with members of the public. The focus group conducted on February 23 in Vienna included of 14 citizens of different social backgrounds.
The participants expressed their expectations and concerns regarding human biomonitoring and their views regarding the responsibilities of business and industry, politicians, scientists and consumers in preventing the emission of pollutants and in minimising exposure.
A central focus of the discussion was the range of options that consumers have for preventing their own exposure, as well as the limits they face in terms of access to information and opportunities for changing consumption patterns.
Consumers face an overload of often contradictory information on product safety, which is difficult to evaluate in terms of trustworthiness and technical details. Consumers also have to juggle different priorities in their busy lives and may face financial constraints that oblige them to purchase cheaper products, likely to contain hazardous properties.
Therefore, as several participants emphasized, it is not enough to just inform consumers, it is also important that the political, business and scientific communities collaborate to foster conditions that prevent the exposure to dangerous substances.
The scientific community has an important role in providing information that is trustworthy, clear and factual. Research should produce detailed knowledge about new substances, including long-term studies, and produce quality data to be shared across European research institutions. This should include the dissemination of information about alternative, less harmful substances. Science should act as a “bridge between the government and the industry”.
Business and industry were seen by citizens as responsible for not using harmful substances in their production processes or products. They have a principle role in scientific innovation, ensuring the safety of their employees and providing information regarding the occurrence of potentially harmful substances to consumers.
Regarding policies, participants called for bans of harmful substances, promoting less harmful alternatives and subsidising industry to minimise pollution. Regarding policy making, participants called for:
- clarification of how scientific evidence feeds into the development of policy measures;
- prevention of a disproportionate influence of industry on the regulatory process;
- enhanced public influence; and
- strong and transparent chemicals regulation at European Union level.
The citizens participating in the workshop expressed the view that a sustainable and harmonized European human biomonitoring network would help to better protect human health and the environment.
Communicating and disseminating results
The participants underlined the importance of communicating and disseminating scientific knowledge regarding chemicals in products, environmental pollutants and associated health risks.
Citizens in the focus group proposed how to make scientific knowledge more accessible and easier to access when making purchasing decisions in everyday life. Suggestions include:
- Using non-technical language;
- Clearly labelling products that contain hazardous substances;
- Producing a publicly accessible database of harmful substances;
- Educating school children regarding food contaminants and relevant publically available information; and
- Offering trainings and counselling for the general public and for employees in the retail sector about harmful substances in the products they sell so they can advise consumers.
Reflections on specific chemical uses and substances
Principle concerns flagged by focus group included pesticides in food and food additives, as well as chemicals in consumer products, such as fabrics, cleaning and care products and cosmetics.
Regarding specific substances, those best known by most respondents, such as mercury, arsenic, lead and bisphenol A, were also those rated as the most hazardous.
Interestingly, substances considered to be safe included pesticides authorised in the European Union and nanomaterials. This may be influenced by a general level of trust in European Union regulations regarding pesticides and the application of nanomaterials.