PARC occupational biomonitoring studies, followed by the predecessor HBM4EU, aim to provide policy-relevant data for the protection of workers
Within HBM4EU, we have created an approach to perform aligned pan-European occupational biomonitoring studies by multi-national collaboration. These kinds of studies can provide relevant and useful information to support EU-wide policy actions aiming to reduce occupational exposure to chemicals. The HBM4EU chromate study is an excellent example of the policy-relevant information that can be produced through these types of studies. PARC occupational biomonitoring projects in the waste management and health care sectors are built upon the experience gained from HBM4EU.
The first of the aligned occupational biomonitoring research studies conducted as part of the Human Biomonitoring Initiative for Europe (HBM4EU) was the chromate study, which involved 602 workers from nine European countries, including both exposed and control groups. Knowledge of the regulatory needs was used to target the chromate study at specific occupational activities. To gain a comprehensive understanding, both traditional and more explorative biomarkers were employed together with environmental monitoring. The study’s findings have been published as a series of original research articles, with the latest paper led by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, providing an overview of the main policy recommendations derived from the study.
Tiina Santonen, research professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and main author of the study, explains that “the main finding of the study was that there is a clear need for further lowering of occupational exposure and occupational exposure limit values to hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)).” In addition, the study revealed that there is room for more effective use of human biomonitoring data in the management of occupational exposure to Cr(VI). “We also found that chrome platers were exposed to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which has not been reported in the literature before”. This suggests that there may be other occupational exposures that have not been fully investigated or identified yet, and that more research may be needed to fully understand the risks associated with these exposures.
“We also conducted a survey targeting policy makers to gather their perspectives on the study and its findings. The results of this survey supported our belief that the study has policy implications. Our experiences underscore the importance of involving policy makers early and continuously throughout the project to ensure that the study's results are applicable to policy decisions” highlights Santonen.
Policy conclusions drawn from HBM4EU chromate study:
- For welding, air levels are achievable below the future EU Binding Occupational Exposure Limit Value (BOELV) of 5 μg/m³. Use of local exhaust ventilation (LEV) and respiratory protective equipment (RPE) seemed to be effective in reducing exposure in welding, although it must be recognised that the use of RPE should be considered as the last resort in the hierarchy of controls.
- Although exposure levels below the BOELV of 5 μg/m3 are achievable also in surface treatment activities, effective RMMs, including automation of Cr electroplating processes and improved use of RPE are needed to further reduce exposure.
- Biomonitoring is a valid method and can be a necessary tool to evaluate the effectiveness of the RMMs in place in Cr(VI) uses.
- Specific biological guidance values for Cr(VI) in welding do not currently exist. Our study provides the necessary data to set specific guidance values for welders and gives further confidence for the setting of guidance values for activities involving exposure to water-soluble chromates.
- Cr-related activities were associated with the induction of oxidative stress and genotoxic effects, thereby representing a potential risk for workers health. There is still a need to consider further lowering of OELs for Cr(VI) to reduce the identified risks.
- Exposure to PFAS in the metal industry needs attention in occupational safety and health practice.
PARC occupational studies in the waste management and health sectors
Within PARC, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research and the Carlos III Health Institute are leading the work on human biomonitoring under the Work Package 4 ‘Monitoring and exposure’. Under this work package two aligned occupational studies have been planned.
The first study will focus on waste management and will leverage the findings of the HBM4EU e-Waste study. This study investigated the exposure and early adverse effects among 200 exposed e-waste processing workers across eight European countries. The preliminary (still unpublished) results suggest that workers may be exposed to phthalates, flame retardants and hazardous metals such as lead and cadmium. The PARC waste management study aims to fill the gaps in the coverage (including 13 countries and different types of e-waste) of the HBM4EU e-Waste study and to broaden the scope to additional waste streams, such as plastic. “The main objective is to support the EU circular economy policy and to ensure that the EU’s transition to a circular economy can be achieved in a way that is safe for workers and consumers.”, says Susana Viegas from the National School of Public Health from NOVA University of Lisbon.
The second PARC occupational project is focused on the investigation of the exposure of healthcare workers to hazardous medicines (HMPs), such as cytotoxic drugs and anesthetic gases in 11 countries. These substances may have genotoxic, carcinogenic and reprotoxic properties. In addition, exposure of healthcare workers to disinfectants will be studied. The European Union has established that hazardous drugs must comply with the minimum requirements for protecting the health and safety of workers, as outlined in both the Council Directive 98/24/EC on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the risks related to chemical agents at work and the Directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens, mutagens or reprotoxic substances at work. Furthermore, an EU-wide guidance to support the implementation of safe use of hazardous medicinal products at work is currently under preparation. In that way, PARC supports these EU efforts to minimize occupational exposure to hazardous medicines and the further development and implementation of harmonised guidance on their safe use.
“Since the number of partners and countries involved in the occupational studies in PARC is higher than those in the HBM4EU occupational studies, we are likely to achieve even greater EU wide representativeness of the results than in the case of the HBM4EU occupational studies.” says Tiina Santonen. Although the HBM4EU chromate study demonstrated the feasibility of conducting a pan-European occupational study using harmonised approaches, there were several lessons learned, which needs to be considered when conducting PARC occupational studies as indicates the reflections published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health. “Practical aspects that could be improved include more thorough/earlier training on the implementation of standard operating procedures to ensure harmonised procedures for field researchers, training on the use of data entry templates as well as improved company communications.”, says Paul Scheepers, the leader of the health care study, from the Radboud Institute for Health Sciences. He also highlights that “We also emphasize the importance of maintaining an active exchange of information with policy makers and regulators to ensure that the results obtained from our research are relevant and useful in a policy context.”.