Since 2002, the Flemish Government’s Flemish Centre of Expertise on Environment and Health has been measuring human exposure to new chemicals that are finding their way into the living environment and to conventional environmental pollutants, such as heavy metals. 

This research is being conducted in cycles lasting four to five years. The most recent cycle began in 2016. Most of the work in 2018 was still devoted to collecting blood, urine and hair samples from 600 young people across Flanders.

This initiative in support of policy makes Flanders a pioneer at European level. The study involves taking measurements on a large scale, and mapping out the effect of exposure to these substances on health. It also includes a research element that provides an insight into the measurement values that have been collected. All of this is intended to result in a policy recommendation. This science-policy interface, in which science is used to support policy-making, is a feather in the cap for Flanders, and is also acknowledged as such in Europe. The HBM4EU project within Horizon 2020 is proof of this.

Humans are exposed to pollutants in a wide variety of ways. They can be inhaled or swallowed in food, or he body can become ‘contaminated’ through the skin. Human biomonitoring involves using samples of blood and urine, for example, to measure human exposure to chemicals. This method also makes it possible to study the relationship between exposure and early-stage effects on health.

This final cycle of the Centre’s project focuses mainly on lifestyle, studying the effect of a healthy lifestyle on health. It asks whether there is any effect on health if you pay more attention to good energy management in the home. Do people who use a wood-burning stove take in more chemicals than those who have underfloor heating? Does the use of environmentally friendly materials in the home affect health? Does this mean that you take in fewer harmful substances and does it make you healthier? And how do our dietary habits contribute to our health?  In short: do an eco-friendly home and eco-friendly lifestyle have any effect on our health? The answer is not as simple as it sounds: after all, anyone who lives in a house is exposed to an array of substances contained in materials, such as flame retardants.

An interesting and useful side-effect of this research is that it also encourages much greater public awareness of exposure to chemicals in everyday life. The researchers’ aim, after all, is to encourage participants to feel personal involvement in the study.