Environmental Health & Safety

Biomonitoring assumes growing significance

Greater emphasis on chemicals uptake is raising the role of this safety tool.

By Lynn Bergeson

As of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is poised to release its much anticipated “Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.” The report will contain more information on more chemicals found in human bodily fluids than the two previous versions. Given the hype, and the success of several well-organized non-governmental organization (NGO) campaigns to heighten awareness of the presence of chemicals in our bodies, the release of the report almost certainly will underscore that chemical manufacturing, processing and use cause chemicals to enter our bodies. This is an aspect of chemical safety that is often overlooked. Every stakeholder in the chemical manufacturing and processing community needs to be prepared to answer the questions that are expected to be asked when the report comes out.

Biomonitoring basics
Biomonitoring is the measurement of chemicals in blood, urine and other human bodily fluids and tissue. Looking for chemicals in the body is hardly new and finding them is not unexpected. Occupational safety and health regulatory agencies have used biomonitoring data for decades. Biological exposure indices (BEI), for example, have been created for over 40 industrial chemicals and are used routinely to track occupational exposures by quantifying concentrations of chemicals in the blood, urine or exhaled air of workers.

Vigorous and high-profile NGO campaigns are more recent and have taken the debate about the “harm” caused by chemical exposure to a new and deeply personal level. It is undeniable that the presence of chemicals in our bodies is compelling information. What is less clear is what this information means and what health and safety inferences, if any, can be drawn from the mere presence of detectable levels on chemicals in our bodies. Nevertheless, the absence of clear guidelines to interpret these data to help define and characterize risk (or the lack thereof) can only hurt the chemical industry.

The latest word
The next report should come out this summer. The first, released in March 2001, catapulted the word “biomonitoring” into everyday conversation. It was a watershed, publicizing the use of these data for regulatory purposes and providing a compelling platform for NGOs to attack certain high-profile chemicals used in many workplace and consumer applications.

Domestic and European agencies have relied on biomonitoring data for years to prioritize chemical reviews and for other standards-setting purposes. In the U.S., the Voluntary Children’s Chemical Evaluation Program (VCCEP) is one of many efforts using such data. In Europe, the Science, Children, Awareness raising, Legal instruments and Evaluation (SCALE) initiative, which focuses on monitoring children for links to chemical exposure, will continue to highlight this issue in European Union countries.
Draft legislation designed to generate these data and make the chemical community pay for them continually surfaces at the Federal and state level. The Healthy Californians Biomonitoring Program, which would evaluate 57 chemicals and would be financed by a fee on the first point of sale of chemicals by manufacturers and non-retail distributors, was defeated last year in California, but a similar bill has been reintroduced this year. Other state legislatures are expected to consider enacting comparable legislation. Many observers believe the pace of such legislative initiatives will pick up considerably in the future.

Despite the uncertainties about their human health relevance, such biomonitoring data undoubtedly will continue to influence global, national and state regulatory and legislative developments for years to come. So, at a minimum you should: (1) stay abreast of these issues; (2) become knowledgeable about the human-health and environmental effects of chemicals relevant to your operations; and (3) be prepared to respond to questions from employees, neighbors and downstream purchasers and users of these chemicals and the products that contain them.

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