Public health effects of exposure to toxic metals

Exposure to toxic elements leads to worrying health problems in many parts of the world, including Europe.

A new, EU-funded research project, involving partners from all over the world, will study the health effects of long-term, low-level exposure to toxic metals. The research is clearly designed to make a difference as its results will be communicated to politicians, industry and other organisations involved in decision-making.

“We will assess the roles of the toxic metals as causes of important diseases. Also, by screening metals in the blood of women and children from different parts of Europe, we will monitor changes over time as well as geographical differences. This will enable us to make comparisons and to assess risks” says Staffan Skerfving, Professor at Lund University, Sweden, who is the co-ordinator of the research project. “For example, the health impacts of metals emitted from the exhaust systems of cars are something that we intend to home in on” he adds.

The research project, PHIME (“Public health aspects of long-term, low-level mixed element exposure in susceptible population strata”) will focus on serious public health problems – developmental disturbances of the foetal brain as well as diseases such as Parkinson´s disease, coronary heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis/fractures, diabetes and uremia. The aim is to identify the proportion of such disorders that can be attributed to exposure to toxic elements, and which could therefore be preventable. PHIME will mainly focus on exposure patterns for those at high risk e.g. the unborn in the mother’s womb, children and women.

The researchers will study toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic, manganese, platinum, palladium, rhodium and uranium, as well as the effects of interaction between the metals. When analysing exposure the researchers will concentrate on identifying the direct sources in the surrounding environment (e.g. toxic metals found in food, water and inhaled air). A key issue to be addressed in PHIME will be the mechanisms by which plants take up and accumulate toxic and essential metals. This will facilitate the design of plants that accumulate less of toxic metals, and more of health-promoting elements (such as selenium, zinc, copper, etc.). The uptake of toxic metals into plants from soil contaminated - through industrial emissions for example - will also be determined.

PHIME is being designed to make a difference when it comes to decision-making. There will be rapid and effective dissemination of the information to decision-makers, industry and organisations with capacity to use them in risk-management and health-promoting activities. Such organisations will include the European Commission, European Community agencies, other international organisations (such as the World Health Organisation), and national and regional authorities on health, foods, environment and agriculture.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) is hosting the launch of the project this week in Copenhagen. “The EEA is particularly interested in the assessment of health impacts of low level exposures to a mixture of pollutants” says Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the Agency. “This research can make an important contribution to science-based decision-making by pinpointing the variability in human vulnerability to environmental stressors and geographical patterns of exposure across Europe”, she adds.

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