What is human biomonitoring (HBM)?

In our everyday lives, we are exposed to chemicals. Human biomonitoring is a tool to measure the exposition to these substances in biological samples such as blood, urine or hair. 

Cleaning agents, paints, cosmetics, foodstuffs, furnishings and plastic goods - all these products are manufactured from or contain chemicals. When used, chemicals can enter the body via the lungs, the gastrointestinal tract or the skin. While exposure to chemicals is not necessarily detrimental to health, adverse effects - e.g. on the nervous, immune or endocrine system - may occur, depending on the properties and concentrations of the substances involved.

Human biomonitoring (HBM) involves measurement of the concentrations of chemicals or their metabolites in human body fluids or tissues - e.g. in urine, blood, breast milk or hair. HBM makes it possible to determine the body burden from overall exposure to a substance. It thus covers all sources of exposure (food, air, water and soil) and intake pathways (inhalation, ingestion and dermal uptake), as well as individual factors (nutrition, metabolism, etc.).

Based on the results of HBM studies, it is possible to assess whether and to what extent, at a given time, a particular population group is exposed to a given substance. Knowledge of possible exposure levels, together with toxicological data, is essential to establish whether exposure of the general population or of specific groups (e.g. children) appears to be acceptable, or whether public health measures are required.

Origins and area of application of HBM

Originally introduced in occupational medicine to protect workers’ health, HBM was first widely used among the general population in the 1970s – to determine blood lead concentrations. Measurement of these concentrations demonstrated that lead exposure – and the associated health risks – declined rapidly following the introduction of unleaded petrol.

HBM programmes were subsequently initiated in various countries, such as Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, the USA and Canada. A key benefit of HBM studies is that they allow assessing the effectiveness of environmental measures.

Further information

Human biomonitoring projects in Switzerland

Switzerland is launching a pilot phase to assess the feasibility of a nationwide human biomonitoring (HBM) project (cohort study).

Last modification 20.08.2018

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