Research shows decreasing exposure to environmental pollutants in Flanders, but…

Lower levels of various environmental pollutants were measured in the blood and urine of Flemish youngsters than five years ago. But the research of the Flemish Center of Expertise on Environment and Health also mentions new substances, the harmful effects of which are not yet well known. Important: some of the participants have measured values above the international guideline levels for some substances.

In the school year 2017-2018, the Flemish Center of Expertise on Environment and Health studied more than 70 environmental pollutants in blood and urine samples of 428 young people spread over Flanders. This is the fourth cycle of the Flemish Human Biomonitoring Programme that is being carried out on behalf of the Environment Department of the Flemish government.

“The levels of many harmful substances are falling compared to previous measurements,” says Prof. Greet Schoeters, affiliated with VITO and UAntwerpen. “These are often substances that have been strictly regulated in the meantime. At the same time, for the first time a lot of new substances were measured in the bodies of young people”. It’s about pesticides, for example. The content of the banned pesticide DDT has been declining for some time in Flanders. But this time, the Flemish Center of Expertise on Environment and Health also collected measurement data on the herbicide glyphosate. Glyphosate was found in 42 % of the urine samples of young people. In the autumn of 2018, the sale of glyphosate to private individuals was banned in Belgium, after Flanders had already issued a ban on its use. Future measurements should show whether these measures are sufficiently effective.

This trend was also observed for chemicals that can be released from plastics. Bisphenol A, a substance found in, among other things, hard plastic bottles, has recently been more strictly regulated for use in food packaging because it can disrupt hormones. From 2020, BPA will also be banned in the EU in thermal paper, used, for example, in cash registers. As a result, the level of bisphenol A in the urine of young people is lower than five years ago. However, producers are replacing bisphenol A with new bisphenols such as bisphenol S and bisphenol F. “These substitutes are marketed as less harmful, but in practice the health impact has not yet been researched”, says Schoeters. “Further research into the impact on health is therefore necessary, in order to avoid harmful substances being replaced by other substances which subsequently turn out to be equally harmful. Our study already shows that most of these new substances occur in a large proportion of young people’s bodies.

Flame retardants are a final example. These are chemicals that, among other things, make furniture and electronics less flammable. Only a few of the banned brominated flame retardants are still measurable in the blood samples of young people. However, almost all young people showed trances of the new generation of organophosphate flame retardants in the urine samples, whose effects on health cannot yet be estimated.

Important signal function

The results of the Flemish youngsters can for some substances be compared with international guideline values, which indicate when there is a health risk. “It is reassuring that there are no alarming signs for any of the substances measured”, explains Dr. Vera Nelen (Provincial Institue for Hygiene). “Still, there are points of concern. After all, for some substances we see participants with measured values above the guide values, which can have a long-term effect on health. This applies, for example, to metal arsenic, cadmium and lead. For some pesticides and the perfluorinated compounds PFOS and PFOA, some young people also have values above the guide values”.

Policies are in place for all these well-known harmful substances. But permanent attention is therefore necessary. The Flemish human biomonitoring programme lends itself perfectly to monitoring exposure to environmental pollutants at the Flemish level. This also makes it a frontrunner in the European HBM4EU programme. Young people with levels exceeding a target value should not immediately worry, but can follow some advice to limit their exposure. After all, the message is: the lower the level, the lower the health risk. Anyone who wants to can find further tips on the website.

New impetus for policy

“It is our ambition to further reduce exposure to environmental pollutants in the bodies of our young people. We commissioned this research in order to monitor the evolution of exposure to pollutants. The results show that, for many pollutants, the efforts of companies, citizens and the authorities are paying off. For example, we already see a reduction in exposure to bisphenol A used in food packaging, PCBs, combustion-related PAHs, phthalates used in floor coverings, paper, mattresses, cables or clothing and heavy metals such as lead, manganese and copper, as well as flame retardants. For other chemicals there is still work to be done and we need to find out how to tackle this further. We also have to keep our finger on the pulse for new substances,” says Flemish Minister for the Environment Zuhal Demir.

In the coming months the researchers will focus on further explanations for the patterns of exposure found. Together with policymakers and organisations involved, they will then set to work on priorities for further policy actions.

This research is an initiative of the Flemish Center of Expertise on Environment and Health, commissioned by The Environment Department of the Flemish government. The Flemish Center of Expertise on Environment and Health is a multidisciplinary research consortium consisting of researchers from the five Flemish universities (Uantwerpen, Ugent, Uhasselt, VUB, KU Leuven) and PIH, and is coordinated by VITO.

For information and tips we refer to the website, where you will also find the extensive report on these results.

You can also contact us:

Dr. Vera NELEN
Spokesperson Flemish Center of Expertise on Environment and Health
Provincial Institue Hygiene, Antwerp
03/259 12 90,

Prof. Dr. Greet SCHOETERS
Coordination Flemish Center of Expertise on Environment and Health
0477/42 77 46,

Brigitte Borgmans
Spokesperson Flemish Department Environment
0473 73 28 30,