Brussels, 02 Mar 2006
Exposure to toxic metals is considered to be a significant contributor to the downfall of the Roman Empire (lead), and madness in hatmakers- leading to the phrase 'as mad as a hatter' (mercury). A new European research project, launched at the European Environment Agency (EEA) in Copenhagen on 1 March, aims to document the effects of long-term, low exposure to toxic metals.
Certain metals are known to be toxic - the case dramatised in the film 'Erin Brockovich' concerned a town exposed to high levels of chromium, and the ill effects they suffered - but there are few studies into specific effects of specific metals over long periods.
PHIME (public health aspects of long-term, low-level mixed element exposure in susceptible population strata) will follow the instances of diseases such as foetal brain abnormalities, Parkinson's disease, cardiovascular diseases, bone diseases and diabetes throughout the world through 31 European and international partners.
The goal of the project is to find out what level of heavy metals cause what proportion of illness in what proportion of people. The researchers also hope to conduct detailed research on the speed that plants take up certain toxic metals, such as arsenic or palladium, in comparison to 'essential' metals such as zinc or copper.
'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 coordinator of the project. 'For example, the health impacts of metals emitted from the exhaust systems of cars are something that we intend to home in on.'
Once complete, it is hoped that PHIME will have a great influence on decision-making, as the information gleaned from the study will be of use in risk management and general health.
The project has engaged 31 partners, including almost all of the EU Member States in addition to Croatia, Switzerland, the US, China, Bangladesh and the Seychelles. The EU's input comes to 13 million euro over five years under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
'The EEA is particularly interested in the assessment of health impacts of low level exposures to a mixture of pollutants,' said the EEA's director, Professor Jacqueline McGlade. '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.'