Evidence of widespread contamination from harmful man-made chemicals has triggered the largest human screening programme ever seen in Europe.
Biomonitoring has found that Europeans absorb hundreds of industrial chemicals, with contamination from phthalates, bisphenol A and PFAS considered a “serious public health problem”. Most of the population is contaminated by some forms of persistent and toxic chemicals. Children are found with higher concentrations of some substances than their mothers and carry “alarming” levels of PFAS. The findings are echoed by the WHO.
Now scientists are carrying out the first ever harmonised snapshot of exposure in Europe. The €74 million human biomonitoring programme HMB4EU (video) has taken blood, urine and other biological samples from thousands of children, teenagers and adults in over 20 European countries from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. The scientists are checking levels of human contamination from 18 of the most concerning chemical groups, including flame retardants, pesticides, plasticisers and the ‘forever chemicals’ family PFAS.
HBM4EU aims to address unanswered questions about how chemicals enter our bodies, combine into chemical cocktails, and what the health impacts might be. The 5 year project aims to provide regulators with the most comprehensive overview of the problem ever achieved. Over 100 labs and 450 toxicologists, epidemiologists, government officials and other experts in 26 EU countries are involved in what organisers describe as “the whole intellectual capacity of Europe in this field”. Biomonitoring results are expected from 2020. The project will offer consumer advice to reduce exposure, such as buying organic food to avoid pesticides, not reheating plastic food containers or using non-stick cookware.
Chemical sales more than doubled in the EU in the decade to 2014 and are expected to double again by 2030. Most are harmful or largely untested, according to a report for the European Commission. They leak from a wide range of consumer products, including plastic packaging, carpets, paper and even toys. Two thirds of Europeans worry about daily chemical exposure. Chemical pollution is linked to rising health, fertility, developmental and environmental problems, including the collapse in insect, bird and aquatic mammal populations.
Environmental groups wrote to incoming Commission president Ursula von der Leyen today, warning that powerful European chemical laws are not being enforced. Chemical safety laws are routinely broken and when officials find substances used dangerously they failed to act in 74% of cases. Just 43 of a target 1,400 hazardous substances are strictly controlled, though firms get permission to continue using them in 99.54% of cases, they wrote. The NGOs want the EU to regulate chemical mixtures, not just individual substances; and phase out persistent chemicals found in the body, as a precaution.
The European Parliament and environment ministers have called on the European Commission to deliver a long-overdue Non-Toxic Environment Strategy. The Commission is due to announce a European Green Deal this winter, including a zero pollution strategy to improve chemical controls.
The EEB is the largest European network of environmental groups and an accredited HMB4EU stakeholder.
EEB chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos said: “The EU has some of the best chemical controls anywhere, but they are barely used because of misguided political priorities. Children are born ‘pre-polluted’ with more substances in their bodies than their parents. This is threatening our future and the costs of inaction are getting too high. The EU should protect current and future generations; business as usual is no longer an option. It should prioritise exposure prevention and protection as a human right. HMB4EU promises to open our eyes like never before and make the problem impossible to ignore.”
Photo credit: Hush Naidoo