The Unit Environmental Risk and Health provides science and technology for policymakers to take informed decisions on environmental health and safety. The research activities require knowledge of toxicology, environmental monitoring, biomonitoring and modelling of complex environmental health problems as well as socio-economic aspects, perception and risk communication. It will be useful for REACH and other environmental and health related guidelines, and will help industry evaluate hazards and risks of chemicals.
The research programme is carried out with a highly qualified staff of scientists and technicians. They participate in different international and national networks and research programs. Ph.D students from different universities are collaborating on the programmes. The unit is organised in three research teams focussing on toxicology, risk assessment and air quality measurements.
The Toxicology research team (TOX) develops generic knowledge about the impact of chemical substances and stressors on biological systems, starting from the molecular/cellular level to the human population. In vitro cell culture and molecular technology are used to develop biomarkers and biomarker assays. These bioassays are implemented in two key areas: (a) safety or hazard assessment of chemicals and (b) human biomonitoring to evaluate the environmental impact on health.
a). Hazard assessment
Toxicity of chemicals and environmental samples (air, water, soil, waste and food) is evaluated using alternative tests. A series of registered and validated geno-toxicity tests, eco-toxicity tests and alternative toxicity tests are carried out according to high quality standards (e.g. GLP).
The research part focuses on development and validation of in vitro assays with human cells to evaluate skin and airway allergic responses, of test systems addressing endocrine disruption and geno-toxicity. Zebrafish embryos are used to assess neuro-developmental toxicity and teratogenicity. The following research projects include development and validation, as well as implementation of the assays for hazard evaluation of chemicals and effect-based monitoring of environmental compartments.
- The aim of the Sens-it-iv project is to develop in vitro alternatives to animal tests currently used for the risk assessment of potential skin or lung sensitizers
(www.sens-it-iv.eu/ (new window)).
- ReProTect is an Integrated Project. It intends to explore the reproductive toxicity. The investigation in this field currently requires substantial numbers of animals and the main objective is to reduce this number (www.reprotect.eu/ (new window)).
- Assessing the Toxicity and Hazard of Non-dioxin-like PCBs present in food. The outcome of this project will allow for a better follow up of exposure and health effects in the human population (www.cascadenet.org/~athon (new window)).
- Development of an Integrated Platform for Nanoparticle Analysis to verify their possible toxicity and the eco-toxicity (www.dipna.net/ (new window)).
b) Human biomonitoring
Biomarkers are developed and applied for detection of exposure and early biological effects of environmental contaminants in the human body. We focus on non-invasive markers which are easily applicable in large-scale human biomonitoring programs. Biomarker measurements include analysis of exhaled breath, buccal cells, urine and small volumes of blood. How to use biomonitoring data and how to link them to health effects and to environmental exposure is an integral part of our research program. The ESBIO (Expert Team to Support Human Biomonitoring) project is supporting environmental policy as well as public health policy by better data comparability and accessibility within and between countries and more effective use of resources through shared development of scientific tools and appropriate strategies (www.eu-humanbiomonitoring.org/ (new window)).
The exposure and risk assessment research team (BREM) is a multidisciplinary research team working on environmental exposure modeling and risk assessment. They develop and apply integrated and comprehensive risk assessments models for government, mainly environmental and health authorities, industry and SME’s.
In order to reach a quantitative assessment of human exposure to contaminants we need extensive environmental measurements and/or human biomonitoring, combined with data on the individual behaviour and demographic factors. These quantitative assessments are used in both epidemiological studies and risk assessments, and can be in site-specific as well as for standards setting in general frameworks (e.g. for soil remediation). Scenario development is an essential element of the exposure assessment process and is based on existing data or on own data surveys and monitoring campaigns. They further combine external dose models with available pharmacokinetic models to determine the fate of compounds.
If semi-quantitative or relative assessments are of more importance, indicators of exposure are developed. These proxies of exposure require less information and enable priority setting, ranking or classification.
Following projects are working on integral risk assessment of environmental health risks:
- Integrated Assessment of Health Risks of Environmental Stressors in Europe. INTARESE brings together a team of internationally lead scientists in the areas of epidemiology, environmental science and biosciences to collaborate on developing and applying new, integrated approaches to the assessment of environmental health risks and consequences, in support of European policy on environmental health www.intarese.org/ (new window).
- Health and Environment Integrated Methodology and Toolbox for Scenario Assessment, HEIMTSA brings together an international team of scientists in the areas of epidemiology, environmental science and biosciences, to collaborate on developing and applying new, integrated approaches to the assessment of environmental health risks and consequences, in support of European policy in transport, energy, agriculture, industry, household and waste treatment and disposal www.heimtsa.eu/ (new window).
- 2-FUN aims to provide decision-makers with state of the art tools to analyse the current and future trends in environmental conditions and pressures that may lead to health problems /www.2-fun.org/ (new window).
Following integrated projects are related to impact assessment.
- A new Environmental Accounting Framework using Externalities and Input-Output Tools for Policy Analysis. The EXIOPOL project aims to synthesize and develop comprehensive estimates of the external costs for Europe of a broad set of economic activities www.feem-project.net/exiopol/ (new window).
- Systematic analysis of Health risks and physical Activity associated with cycling Policies. SHAPES is at the crossroads of transport and health research and uses advanced GIS techniques to integrate the results of basic studies and experiments in each expertise (air pollution, physical health and accidents) in order to support future transport and public health policies www.shapes-ssd.be/ (new window).
- Regional exposure assessment for cadmium and arsenic.
- Modelling food chain transfer and human exposure to dioxins and PCBs in Flanders.
- Integrated exposure assessment to PFOS and flame retardants.
The air quality measurement research team (LKM) focuses on the development and the optimisation of methods and instruments for emission assessment, exposure assessment, (urban) air quality and source apportionment for environmental measurements. Therefore the team is developing:
- a passive soil air sampler able to determine soil air concentrations and qualitative characteristics;
- risk evaluation methods and modelling, and building capacity for modelling, monitoring and measuring of product emissions and indoor air quality;
- on the one hand a monitoring methodology for Nano/UFP source apportionment in workplaces and the ambient environment, and exposure quantification to relevant workplace and ambient environments on the other;
An important new research strategy in the team is the use of mobile sensors, sensor networks and novel ICT-driven research techniques such as crowd sourcing and participatory data collection (Community-Based Monitoring) to assess exposure to air pollution in a more detailed way. The many years’ experience of the team in the field of air quality measurements is combined with new possibilities in the field of data communication, data mining, statistical modeling techniques and interactive web applications. In several research projects and PhD research the systematical use of mobile measurements, the use of low-cost sensors and community-based monitoring strategies are investigated.
Together with the University of Ghent and Erasmus Hogeschool Brussels VITO develops an intelligent network for air quality and noise.
Samen met de Universiteit Gent en de Erasmus Hogeschool werkt VITO aan de ontwikkeling van een intelligent sensornetwerk voor luchtkwaliteit en geluid (www.idea-project.be). Stationary microphones and gas sensors, and mobile sensors for ultrafine particles and black carbon will be integrated in a heterogenous network to monitor air quality and noise in the urban environment.
In the European research project EveryAware (www.everyaware.eu) VITO investigates the possibilities to involve citizens in mapping urban air quality with the use of low cost sensors and Community Based Monitoring.
In het European research project CARBOTRAF (www.carbotraf.eu) VITO is responsible for evaluating the effects of ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) measurements on the exposure of people to Black Carbon, both through air quality measurements and modeling, and on CO2 emissions.
The following projects receive substantial input from the LKM research team:
- The AIRTV project tries to reduce the period of time between the initiation and development of Environmental sound Technologies (EsT) in the field of air emissions prevention and reduction technologies in Europe and their introduction in the market www.airtv.eu/ (new window).
- The BIBA project studies the influence of contaminants in ambient air on the indoor air quality wwwb.vito.be/flies/flies_start.aspx (new window).
- The HEMICPD project works on normalized methods for the implementation of the essential requirement N°3 of the CPD regarding emissions to indoor air in Belgium www.bbri.be/homepage/index.cfm?cat=bbri⊂rd&pag=projects&art=hemicpd&niv01=introduction (new window)
- EPHECT, Exposure Patterns and Health Effects of Consumer Products in the EU sites.vito.be/sites/ephect/ (new window)
- SINPHONIE Schools Indoor Pollution and Health: Observatory Network in Europe. Received funding from DG Sanco, Health and Consumer Protection Directorate. (10-2011 until 09-2012) www.sinphonie.eu (new window)
- OFFICAIR, aims at establishing a framework that will provide new knowledge in terms of databases, modelling tools and assessment methods towards an integrated approach in assessing the health risk from indoor air pollution, focusing on modern office buildings. The results will support current EU policies, such as, the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution and the European Environment and Health Strategy and Action Plan. Received funding from the European Union, in the 7th Framework Program under the Theme: ENV.2010.1.2.2-1, 11-2011 untill 10-2013, http://www.officair-project.eu/ (new window)