VITO is closely involved in PARC, the European Union’s ambitious partnership that is tasked with improving and harmonising chemical risk assessment, and the relevant methods and tools. PARC is jointly controlled by the European Commission and the Member States. ‘Ultimately, this should result in a win-win, where best practices and data are shared as much as possible and chemical safety issues are resolved.’

PARC, the European Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals

PARC, the European Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals, was officially launched in May 2022. It aims to make assessments of the risks of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the European market more efficient and proactive, to help phase out harmful substances and look for safe alternatives. To this end, methods within PARC are adapted where necessary, new methods are developed and implemented, and data are also generated to fill knowledge gaps. Data and methods are also harmonised. Thanks to close collaboration between scientists and policymakers, the research is driven from the needs of policy and regulation, with the results being immediately translated thereafter. Innovation, a larger impact, and forming and strengthening European knowledge and expertise networks are key pillars.

One substance, one assessment. This is one of the principles of the partnership. Assessments of risks for human health and the environment will be harmonised as much as possible within Europe - between countries but also, for example, between supranational EU bodies such as the agencies for the environment and food safety. By facilitating this harmonisation, PARC will help support the European Strategy for Sustainable Chemicals, for example via REACH. The partnership will therefore also help achieve ‘zero pollution’, as set out in the Green Deal. 

Leverage for national efforts

PARC is an extension of HBM4EU, the European human biomonitoring initiative that ended mid 2022, and which monitored the exposure of the European population to chemicals. However, the programme of the new partnership is much broader, including all aspects of chemical safety. ‘Every Member State actively monitors chemicals and assesses their risks to humans and the environment,’ explains Kirsten Baken of VITO. ‘Having a large-scale programme at European level is therefore logical and it can support participating EU Member States (and non-EU countries such as the UK and Switzerland) in this area. It can act as leverage for the efforts at the national level. And conversely, knowledge and experience from individual countries can be shared with others by integrating and harmonising it at that European level.’

PARC brings together around 200 partners from 28 countries. VITO is one of them. But not just any partner, as it sits on the partnership’s executive board. Experts from VITO work together on three themes: human biomonitoring, exposure and health risk assessments from an integrated perspective, and data management.

The first theme can be seen as a continuation of HBM4EU, with further refinement and harmonisation of the biomonitoring. For example, there will be shorter time periods for collecting blood and urine samples, more focus on identifying sources and routes of exposure, and data will be collected from as many locations in Europe as possible. Innovative sampling methods, whereby more people are monitored, and more frequently, may help in this regard. One example is a quick finger prick that can replace a blood sample being taken. ‘One of the goals within this theme is to identify exposure to substances that could potentially cause harmful health effects as early as possible,’ explains Baken. ‘We will also be able to make policy recommendations based on the monitoring, for example based on knowledge of the origin of harmful substances or their expected health impact.’

VITO’s prominent role within the biomonitoring programme at PARC is thanks to the key role it played, and still plays, in setting up and developing the Flemish human biomonitoring programme - of course, in close cooperation with the Environment Department of the Flemish Government. ‘We have more than 20 years of experience in human biomonitoring,’ confirms Baken. ‘So we can bring this into PARC as well.’

For the second theme, integral exposure and risk assessments, the focus is not on individual substances but on combinations of substances. Within this theme health risks of mixtures is being studied because exposure rarely happens through one substance alone. A by now well-known example is PFAS, a family of thousands of related so-called perfluorinated compounds. Exposure to substances can occur in various ways. Baken: ‘For example, food, skin contact, inhalation ... we try to look at all these exposure routes together for substances or groups of substances. That way, we arrive at realistic exposure scenarios.’

The third theme in which VITO is involved, and which it also jointly leads, is all about data, including proper management and adequate policies. ‘This is uncharted territory. There is still too little use (and reuse) of already existing data in the field of chemical risk assessments’, explains Jan Theunis of VITO. ‘What’s more, far too few datasets have been unlocked.’ So within PARC, it’s not only about harmonising assessments and tools in this regard, but also the underlying data. ‘Because of the lack of harmonisation and accessibility, a huge amount of data is left untapped. Ordering and structuring in this area can result in better risk assessments at European level. Both companies and governments could benefit from this.’

FAIR principles

One example of such a structure, or rather a glimpse of it, is a visualisation exercise set up by VITO. VITO devised a dashboard which shows, for a large group of chemicals, the corresponding indicators measured in blood or urine (biomarkers), in which countries they were measured and where the underlying data are located. The dashboard covers a 30-year period (1991-2021), thereby providing a first glimpse of what the work on data within PARC can lead to.

It is being explored within the partnership how a wide range of exposure, toxicology and risk data can be made available within a European data infrastructure. And how data sharing and reuse within the chemical risk assessment community can be facilitated. A key aspect in this regard are the so-called FAIR principles: data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable (compatible with each other) and Reusable. ‘Specifically, we are starting with human biomonitoring data. This is in close cooperation with the Go FAIR Foundation and the University of Birmingham, among others. The University of Birmingham has a lot of experience in the area of ‘FAIR’ toxicological data.’

VITO is also involved in the development of this European data infrastructure, which is part of the European research infrastructure EIRENE. This involves aligning the development of a Belgian, national infrastructure with the European one.

PARC will run until 2029 and can count on total funding of €400 million. Half of this budget comes from the European Commission, while the other half comes directly from Member States. ‘This is important,’ explains Baken, ‘because it also gives Member States a say and allows them to help set priorities. It does add some complexity to the operations, but ultimately it offers a win-win, where best practices are shared as much as possible and chemical safety issues are resolved.’

Finally, VITO’s close involvement in PARC means that its capacity needs to be extended. The PARC team is expanding its capacities with new researchers, and will issue additional PhD topics in the future.


This partnership has received financial support from the research and innovation programme Horizon Europe of the European Union under the Grant Agreement No. 101057014.

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