Human biomonitoring survey

WHO is developing a standardized methodology for a cross-sectional human biomonitoring survey that assesses prenatal (in utero) exposures to priority environmental pollutants.

Cross-sectional surveys aim at estimating the level of a specific exposure in a defined population at a particular point in time. This survey is designed to assess the baseline conditions and then to monitor progress towards preventing disease arising from chemical, biological and physical environments (Regional Priority Goal 4).

The survey is meant to be an experimental tool for monitoring the implementation of commitments to reduce early life exposures to harmful substances. Participating Member States are encouraged to repeat the survey to track their progress.

Substances include mercury, lead, cadmium, tobacco smoke, and selected organic pollutants which are known to affect the health of children during prenatal development:

  • Prenatal exposure to methylmercury will be assessed by measuring total mercury in maternal hair and, when there are known local sources of exposure to inorganic or elemental mercury, mercury in maternal urine and in cord blood.
  • Prenatal exposure to lead will be assessed by measuring lead in cord blood.
  • Exposure to cadmium will be assessed by measuring cadmium in maternal urine.
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke will be assessed by measuring cotinine in maternal urine, a biomarker of exposure to tobacco smoke. 
  • Prenatal exposure to selected organic pollutants in populations living in areas with high exposure levels (hot spots) will be assessed using appropriate biomarkers.

The implementation of national surveys will involve capacity building efforts and collaboration with European institutions specializing in human biomonitoring. The first pilot survey started in 2013 in the Russian Federation.