VITO plays a prominent role in the new large-scale European PARC programme (Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals), which is currently being set up to start next year. VITO owes this to its impressive track record in Flanders and in Europe.

Through the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative HBM4EU, which finishes at the end of this year, the exposure of the European population to chemicals has been measured and assessed since 2017. This should provide a better understanding of the health effects of such exposures and thus improve chemical risk assessment. VITO and its Health unit are co-coordinators of the initiative, which can be seen as the culmination of more than twenty years of progressive environmental and health research.

VITO was still young when it began to develop specialist expertise on biomonitoring at the late 1990s. ‘Initially, it was mainly research into the effects of chemical substances on the environment,’ says Greet Schoeters of VITO. ‘So that’s ecotoxicology, looking at the impact on plants and animals.’ At the start of this century, the study of effects on human health was added. ‘A very broad programme was set up around it, and from the outset we focused strongly on the multi-disciplinary nature of the research – which was reflected in the composition of our teams. The research helped Flanders to develop evidence-based environmental and health policies with an important role for the effects of environmental stress on humans.’

Policy-oriented and multidisciplinary research

But good policy needs more than evidence-based information alone – it also needs solutions for addressing the exposed problems. ‘As a followup to our various measurement programmes, so-called phase plans were rolled out locally, consisting of  policy-oriented solutions,’ says Rudi Torfs of VITO. ‘At a European level, that was quite unique; we were in the forefront.’ Also progressive was VITO’s use of new technology in its biomonitoring campaigns and research.

‘Very early on, we switched from old-fashioned animal testing to techniques such as in-vitro research, which enabled us to study the effects on individual tissues and cells,’ adds Schoeters. ‘That research was more than just descriptive; we also explored the biological mechanisms behind the effects of chemical substances.’

Today, biomonitoring research is far broader than it was twenty years ago. ‘We no longer only focus on the harmfulness of substances, but also attach importance to aspects that contribute positively to our health and to a clean living environment,’ says Torfs. ‘How do we lay out that environment? How do we make maximum use of space? How can we reduce health inequalities? These are some excellent themes that we have to approach in a very multidisciplinary way.’ Biomonitoring is therefore not just about pointing the finger when a substance has been detected that does not really belong in the environment or in the human body.

Today, companies are also encouraged to determine the toxicity of their products or systems at the design stage, so they can intervene on time – known as the sustainability by design principle. This also requires the use of advanced technology, which demonstrates again that good biomonitoring research is strongly technology driven.

Proven track record in biomonitoring

Hence, VITO helped to form the basis of the Flemish biomonitoring programme, in fact of the Flemish environment and health policy. Schoeters: ‘Central to our approach was that we never lost sight of the fact that results and data should always be usable by policy-makers. Not just random measurements, but always with a focus on policy translation.’ VITO also found an international response with its approach. In Europe, it therefore became part of the foundation for a similar system that was also based on technology, multi-disciplinarity and policy translation, and later to the HBM4EU. ‘In other European countries, biomonitoring had been much more classically inspired for a long time. It’s nice to see that the way we brought technological innovation to Flanders has also found its way to the European level.’

And VITO’s innovations in the field of biomonitoring are continuing to find their way into Europe. As a successor to HBM4EU, PARC will soon be rolled out, which is part of the Horizon Europe programme and will run from 2022 to 2028. ‘Because of the corona pandemic, the importance of health is greater than ever,’ says Schoeters. ‘That makes it very important to be strongly represented in such a large programme (PARC has no less than 400 million euros in funding). This gives us a seat at the table where European regulations are being worked out as part of the EU ambition to reduce pollution to zero and create an environment free of toxic substances – as described in the Green Deal.’

Thanks to its excellent reputation and because it is, among other things, jointly responsible for distributing and implementing the work packages within PARC, VITO holds an important voice and a strong Flemish voice in the upcoming European initiative. ‘Our proven track record and good relations with the European  Environment Agency and the Directorate-General for the Environment (of the European Commission), among others, outweigh us,’ says Schoeters, who also participated eight years in the European Environment Agency’s scientific advisory committee.

One important task for PARC is to  provide access to environmental and health data at a European level. VITO has a lot of experience with this and will therefore submit a proposal for a separate work package on data. ‘Today, too little attention is paid to the correct handling and integration of data,’ says Torfs. ‘We have 27 different research cultures in the EU, which will need to be harmonised in one way or another.’ The data must be accessible in accordance with the FAIR principles: findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. ‘One of VITO’s goals is to start blending European environmental with health data.’ Hence, VITO is continuing to stand out in the field of biomonitoring, both in Flanders and in Europe.

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