Human biomonitoring (HBM) is an effective tool for assessing actual exposure to chemicals that takes into account all routes of intake. Although hair analysis is considered to be an optimal biomarker for assessing mercury exposure, the lack of harmonization as regards sampling and analytical procedures has often limited the comparison of data at national and international level. The European-funded projects COPHES and DEMOCOPHES developed and tested a harmonized European approach to Human Biomonitoring in response to the European Environment and Health Action Plan. Herein we describe the quality assurance program (QAP) for assessing mercury levels in hair samples from more than 1800 mother-child pairs recruited in 17 European countries. To ensure the comparability of the results, standard operating procedures (SOPs) for sampling and for mercury analysis were drafted and distributed to participating laboratories. Training sessions were organized for field workers and four external quality-assessment exercises (ICI/EQUAS), followed by the corresponding web conferences, were organized between March 2011 and February 2012. ICI/EQUAS used native hair samples at two mercury concentration ranges (0.20-0.71 and 0.80-1.63) per exercise. The results revealed relative standard deviations of 7.87-13.55% and 4.04-11.31% for the low and high mercury concentration ranges, respectively. A total of 16 out of 18 participating laboratories the QAP requirements and were allowed to analyze samples from the DEMOCOPHES pilot study. Web conferences after each ICI/EQUAS revealed this to be a new and effective tool for improving analytical performance and increasing capacity building. The procedure developed and tested in COPHES/DEMOCOPHES would be optimal for application on a global scale as regards implementation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
Keywords: Biomonitoring; COPHES/DEMOCOPHES; Hair; Mercury; Minamata convention; Quality assurance.
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