Changing environment, changing health

Today, we are witnesses of a dynamic moment in history, in which escalating and forceful changes in our environment and ecosystems are occurring. Not only in our natural (ecological) environment, but also in our social, societal, technological, and physical environments. All of these contextual spheres that surround us can affect the health of our bodies and minds to varying degrees.

For example, the first generation of children who have grown up with internet-based devices since birth are now teenagers. Online gaming disorder has been recognised as a behavioural addiction, information overload has renewed meaning, and drastic policies may be needed to curb pathological social media use. Elsewhere, with the backdrop of a high-fat, high-sugar and on-the-go culture, an estimated 50 % of people are now overweight or obese in the WHO European region, with related increases in diabetes and cardiovascular disease over the last few decades. While 70 million Europeans currently live with asthma, by 2025 it is predicted that 50 % of Europeans will suffer from some form of allergy. Even our gut microbiome is changing, one of the reasons being the increase in caesarean section births. On the other hand, we have also of course witnessed many beneficial technological and societal breakthroughs, for example precision agriculture, or the successful HPV vaccine campaign. What is undeniable, however, is that our all-encompassing environment and our individual health are intimately interlinked.

Human biomonitoring

An overarching environment that is changing, is our chemical environment. How is air pollution affecting us? Are gluten intolerances really on the rise? Is our water safe to drink? For a number of chemicals and mixtures of chemicals, the health impacts from exposure are still unknown or poorly understood. This is where the HBM4EU project (Human Biomonitoring Initiative in Europe) comes into play, an initiative between 30 countries (including the 27 EU member states), the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Commission to coordinate and advance human biomonitoring in the EU. The collaborative project aims to examine the actual exposure of citizens to chemicals and any associated health effects, in order to support policy-making and protect human health.

The HBM4EU project is responding to citizen’s concerns. The teams are creating harmonised, coherent, and consistent datasets around Europe. National hubs have been established and a lot of groundwork has been achieved in the last two to three years. Dr Marike Kolossa-Gehring, from the German Environment Agency (UBA), is coordinator of the project.

The research

Dr Marike Kolossa-Gehring, biologist and toxicologist: “The first big success of HBM4EU accomplished in the first years was to set up this big network at the science policy interface in which national and European agencies, ministries in charge of the national research programmes, universities and other research institutions work together to improve chemicals policy and answer concrete policy relevant questions. Additionally, the agreement to directly share data and results and make them available immediately after finalisation to policy-makers and also to the public can be counted as a big step forward.”

Some of the priority substances being examined are: acrylamide, phthalates, bisphenols, flame retardants, pesticides, mycotoxins, perfluorinated substances, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. One of the main pillars of the HBM4EU work is to establish exposure/health relationships. Prof Jana Klánová from the RECETOX centre of the Masaryk University in Czechia leads the work package on adverse outcome pathways, which is one element of this complex effort.

Prof. Jana Klánová, professor of environmental chemistry : “The individual work packages of the HBM4EU pillar on exposure/health relationships look for innovative approaches to assess toxic mixtures, identify and quantify exposures to emerging pollutants, employ mathematical models to predict behaviour of chemicals in the environment and human body, investigate mechanisms through which the chemicals affect human health, identify best biomarkers of potential health risks, and explore the potential of linking environmental data with data from the health registers. However, since we only have limited time and limited resources, these activities are restricted to pre-selected priority chemicals to help with interpretation of data from biomonitoring studies.”

Prof Klánová continues, “So far, we have identified, for instance, two adverse outcome pathways by which Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), a flame retardant used to substitute previously banned substances, is likely to lead to impaired hearing or cognitive performance in humans through its effects on hormone (thyroid) regulation. For other novel flame retardants, we have for the first identified the time causal mechanisms by which they could decrease fertility in males through affecting a steroid hormone production in testicular cells. We have also established the links between Bisphenol-S and obesity. Bisphenol-S is used in plastics as a substitute for Bispenol-A, which is a known endocrine disruptor”.

Dr Marike Kolossa-Gehring additionally illustrates, “Starting with the example of anti-androgenic chemicals, which are known to additively impact male reproductive health, a proof of concept has been developed that might build the basis for a regulatory discussion about the need for an additional uncertainty factor. In interactions with other EU programmes on mixture toxicity, a gap analysis for research and regulatory needs has been conducted and a respective recommendation has been sent to the EU Commission”.

Prepping for the future

Citizens care deeply about their environment, and chemicals are high on the political agenda. Responding to this, HBM4EU is ready to serve the future acting as a public health tool to help transition towards a sustainable, non-toxic environment. “HBM4EU supports the feeling of security in citizens by helping to improve regulation but also by delivering science-based, easily accessible information – and knowledge-derived recommendations on how to reduce personal exposure. HBM4EU results will also help citizens to distinguish between potential risks and irrational fears. Results are freely available on the HBM4EU website”, says DrMarike Kolossa-Gehring.Hopefully, more positive changes will also follow in other areas that impact our health such as our physical and social infrastructures.

By Sophie Millar

This article has originally been published by the European Science and Media Hub and it is accessible here.

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