What is Human Biomonitoring?
The aim of HBM is to collect information on the exposure of a sample of the population which can then form the basis for further action at collective and at individual level.
Chemicals are all around us
No matter where we live, we are surrounded by environmental substances. They are in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, the products we use, and in the clothes we wear. Most of these substances occur naturally in the environment, but others are produced by men. Their presence in our bodies and the interactions they create remain, to a large extent, unknown.
HBM is a scientific technique that allows us to assess whether and to what extent these environmental substances have entered our bodies and how exposure may be changing over time. By measuring the concentration of natural and synthetic compounds in body fluids (blood, urine, and breast milk) or tissues (hair, nails, fat, and bone), HBM can provide valuable information on environmental exposures and, in some cases, help, identifying potential health risks.
One of the strengths of HBM is that it can give very precise information on the total internal exposure of an individual at a given time, as it adds together exposure from multiple sources and routes (e.g. air, water, food). Yet, the risks these exposures may pose to human health, in which combination and at what levels, remain difficult to evaluate. A combination with other methods is needed for this.
Asking the right questions
HBM is much more than undertaking many chemical analyses. As well as quantitative chemical data, health professionals and policy-makers need to know where the chemicals come from, how they enter our bodies and what the possible health effects might be. For this, depending on the aims of the particular study, sample collection from volunteers is accompanied by carefully designed interviews and by questionnaires that investigate a range of factors that can reveal sources and pathways for exposure, such as: lifestyle (e.g. smoking, use of personal care products, living surroundings) and diet (food preferences) and other personal characteristics such as gender, age and medical history.
Creating a basis for policy-making
For a given chemical, HBM surveys can highlight spatial trends, help uncover cultural and lifestyle contributing factors, and indicate specific at-risk groups, such as given age cohorts. Surveys can also be repeated to reveal which chemical levels are increasing or decreasing with time and thus provide a focus for policy driven action or for policy evaluation. So far, HBM surveys have been conducted on a national or lower scale. And these have led to informed policy-making – which demonstrates the potential of HBM.
The vital importance of HBM lies in its preventative nature and its ability to track the results of policy initiatives. Daily, Europe’s citizens are exposed to a huge range of chemicals, both natural and man-made, which enter the human body. And although the amounts may be small, and their effects sometimes poorly understood, continuous exposure to a mix of these chemicals over long periods measured could have consequences for the health and well-being of individuals and society as a whole. HBM surveys have shown that important information can be systematically collected on chemical exposure. When combined with information on possible sources, the way chemicals enter our bodies, and how they are metabolised this is vital information for the authorities concerned to take preventive actions on a scientific base.