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Scientific advances and innovation in environmental and occupational health monitoring

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Scientific advances and innovation in environmental and occupational health monitoring
2021 04-08

The first 3 months of 2021 saw the publication of a series of six peer-reviewed articles in the area of environmental and occupational monitoring, in which Dr Radu Duca has participated. Dr Duca is the head of the Unit Environmental Hygiene and Human Biological Monitoring (HBM), one of the three units hosted within the Department Health Protection.

Firstly, in the area of occupational monitoring, Dr Duca worked, together with partners from the European Consortium HBM4EU, which aims to coordinate, harmonize and improve human biomonitoring (HBM) across Europe, on a project for occupational exposure to chromium. Chromium (VI) is a genotoxic metal. The consortium has successfully performed HBM of this metal on innovative matrices, such as exhaled breath condensates (EBC) or red blood cells. The LNS has successfully implemented the corresponding standardized operating procedures in Luxembourg, and this in collaboration with the “Service de Santé au Travail Multisectoriel” (STM). As Luxembourg carried out the study after the first Covid-19 lock-down, the international protocol was to be slightly adapted, and EBC samples were not taken because of high risk of virus transmission via air (International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 2021;234:113725). Occupational exposure to chromium (VI) generally occurs through inhalation and dermal contact. Not only for metals, but also for organic chemical pollutants, dermal contact may be an important route of exposure. This is especially the case for Volatile Organic Compounds, such as toluene. Dr Duca has co-authored a study that assessed the extent of chemical permeation across different types of gloves, routinely used as personal protective equipment. The study used an innovative method based on activated charcoal cloth, an experimental box with controlled spray exposure rates and a mannequin hand, and revealed that latex gloves had overall the highest levels of toluene ingress as compared with gloves made of nitrile, neoprene or polymer-laminate (Journal of Hazardous Materials 2021;411:125045).

Secondly, in the area of environmental monitoring, Dr Duca participated in a cross-sectional survey on farmers’ behaviour in Morocco. The survey showed application of high amounts of pesticides, including organochlorines and organophosphates, combined with poor knowledge of the health risks, and  leading to poor safety behaviour (Sustainable Production and Consumption 2021;25:471-483). The second study in which Dr Duca participated, went a step further, with precise measurements of these pesticides in groundwater samples from the same geographical areas. A total of 27 pesticides were found, with significant levels of organochlorides and organophosphates, posing a threat to human health through potential contamination of drinking water (Environmental Pollution 2021;276:116638). The two studies strongly advocate for better training of farmers and for systematic monitoring of groundwater contamination in developing countries.

Thirdly, in the upcoming domain of electronic waste (e-waste), Dr Duca has joined an international group of experts in a position paper. E-waste practices create high exposure to toxic substances, including organic compounds (such as flame retardants, polychlorobiphenyls (PCBs),…) as well as heavy metals. Exposure happens not only to workers in the sector, but also via the environment, and is thus of importance for every citizen. Recycling of e-waste amounts to more than 50 million metric tonnes per year worldwide. Following the EU new circular economy policy (EEA, 2019) and the need to enhance the recycling of e-waste, the waste management/recycling activities will thus increase and get more attention in Europe. The international group of experts launch a call for global responsibility and independent surveillance of compliance with the Basel Ban Amendment ( (Environmental Research 2021;194:110728).

Lastly, Dr Duca contributed to an important review article on HBM of “effect biomarkers”. The so-called “effect biomarkers” are biomarkers that can be used to study the relationships between exposures to environmental pollutants and health outcomes. The review article is based on a mechanistic strategy, since understanding the underlying biological mechanisms and causal relationships is critical to the validation of such biomarkers. As an example, effect biomarkers of chromium exposure can be oxidative stress and DNA or chromosome damage. The review article contains an impressive list and state of the art in the area of “effect biomarkers”, including, amongst others, genotoxicity, serum lipids or hormones, hepatic or renal function, oxidative stress, epigenetic or gene expression, but also neuropsychological biomarkers (Environment International 2021;146:106257). Dr Duca participated in the review as an expert from the OECD Occupational HBM Group, from the ISES Europe HBM group, and from the HBM4EU Occupational Group.

The LNS is proud of all these contributions by Dr Radu Duca, to innovation, international standardization, social responsibility and scientific strategy initiatives, in the area of environmental and occupational exposure monitoring and HBM.