On 27th and 28th April the final conference of the research project HBM4EU brought together policymakers, scientists, civil society and industry representatives from across Europe to discuss the latest human biomonitoring data on harmful chemicals. The conference had a clear message: a lot more needs to be done to protect the general population from health impacts due to chemical exposure. For many substances, such as the persistent and toxic PFAS chemicals, action is long overdue.
HBM4EU is a joint European research programme coordinated by the German Environment Agency, comprising 116 partner institutions from 30 member countries. Between 2017-2022 HBM4EU established a network of laboratories across Europe to conduct biomonitoring studies, investigated relations between exposure and health and commented on policy questions concerning the regulation of hazardous chemicals. CHEM Trust has been contributing to the project as one of the stakeholder organisations.
Harmful substances found in the European population
HBM4EU assessed and harmonised existing data and coordinated new biomonitoring studies with a focus on 18 priority substances/substance groups, including PFAS, bisphenols, phthalates and flame retardants, and found that the European population is widely exposed.
For example, as presented by Marike Kolossa, coordinator of HBM4EU and Head of Toxicology from the German Environment Agency, data from studies on 10 phthalates and DINCH (a substitute for some phthalates) demonstrated that children and teenagers throughout the EU are exposed to these substances, with metabolites being detected in nearly all samples (see page 48 of HBM4EU conference newspaper).
Results from studies on bisphenol A (BPA) showed that human exposure to the endocrine disrupter BPA is widespread and more actions would be needed to reduce exposure (see page 53 of HBM4EU conference newspaper). In addition, as explained by Robert Barouki, professor of biochemistry at the University of Paris School of Medicin, data on bisphenol S and bisphenol F showed that median levels of urinary BPA alternatives are increasing in all European regions (see page 52 of HBM4EU conference newspaper). This is an indication of ‘regrettable substitution’, where a (partly) regulated substance is replaced by ones of similar concern and is why CHEM Trust and others call for groups of chemicals to be restricted.
Research presented by Maria Uhl from the Environment Agency Austria showed that over 14% of the European teenagers analysed had levels of several PFAS (PFOS + PFHxS + PFOA + PFNA) in their bodies that, when combined, exceeded assumed safe levels set by the European Food Safety Authority (see page 55 of HBM4EU conference newspaper). This means that their health may be harmed by these chemicals. The HBM4EU results on PFAS demonstrate the urgent need to reduce human exposure levels.
Data highlights concern about chemical mixtures
The research produced by HBM4EU supports the need to address combined exposure to chemicals, also known as chemical mixtures.
A presentation by Professor Andreas Kortenkamp, from Brunel University London, demonstrated using data on male fertility that when only one chemical (or small group of chemicals) is considered, the exposure of a person may well be within safe levels. However as more chemicals are added to the calculation, the risks increase, safety margins are exhausted, and safe levels are exceeded.
The EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability commits to addressing the risks from mixture exposures. In CHEM Trust’s view, a Mixture Assessment Factor (MAF) must be incorporated in all chemical assessments, starting with the main EU chemicals law REACH.
Ninja Reineke, CHEM Trust Head of Science, said:
“Even though the EU’s chemical legislation is regarded as one of the best in the world it has failed to prevent health impacts and still leaves current and future generations at risk. The data presented at the conference are very concerning and a clear call for action for speed up the regulation of harmful chemicals in the upcoming EU policy reforms. HBM4EU has delivered important new research results. The most important follow up will be to use HBM4EU data for more precautionary decision-making.
Human biomonitoring is a very important tool which needs more resources but the availability of exposure data in people should never become a prerequisite for policy action. The aim should always be to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals in the first place.”
Comments from the European Commission and European Environment Agency
Christina de Avila, Head of Unit for Safe & Sustainable Chemicals at DG Environment, emphasised her concerns about chemical pollution, likening it to the climate crisis, and stated that data from the HBM4EU project confirms the need to act on several of the most hazardous chemicals in consumer products, including PFAS, bisphenols, and flame retardants.
The use of a number of groups of these substances have been identified for restriction under REACH, the EU’s main chemicals law, following the publication of the European Commission’s ‘Restrictions Roadmap’. Read CHEM Trust’s reaction to the roadmap here.
Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), highlighted that we have already gone beyond the safe planetary boundary for chemical pollution. Pollution has been identified as the third planetary crisis, alongside climate change and biodiversity loss, and the three are all interconnected.
The future: PARC
The European Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals (PARC), launched in Paris last week and set to span seven years, ‘aims to advance research, share knowledge and improve skills in chemical risk assessment’. It will be carried out by 200 partners from 28 countries, national agencies and research organisations, as well as the EEA, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
Click here to download all presentations from HBM4EU conference.