Evidence of widespread contamination from harmful man-made chemicals has triggered the largest human screening programme ever seen in Europe.

Past biomonitoring studies have 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 World Health Organisation

Now scientists are carrying out the first ever harmonised snapshot of exposure in Europe. The €74 million human biomonitoring programme HMB4EU 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.

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. Biomonitoring results are expected from 2020.

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”. 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 packagingcarpetspaper and even toys. Two thirds of Europeans worry about daily chemical exposure. Chemical pollution is linked to rising healthfertilitydevelopmental and environmental problems, including the collapse in insect, bird and aquatic mammal populations.

Photo credit: Hush Naidoo

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