By Adeline Lopez
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 20% of the global burden of disease is linked to environmental factors, such as chemical exposures. The production and use of potentially harmful chemicals continues to rise across the world, particularly in developing countries. Understanding and managing the risks associated with these chemical exposures is challenging, particularly in those countries with limited scientific knowledge and resources.
“There is a great need for global efforts to share knowledge and expertise to improve chemical risk assessment and management,” said Christopher Weis, Ph.D., toxicology liaison and senior advisor in the Office of the Director.
Creating a Global Risk Assessment Network
“WHO-convened meetings had identified that effective chemicals management required greater international cooperation between governments, including between developed and developing countries,” said Richard Brown, Ph.D., a technical officer at the Headquarters of the WHO, the Secretariat to the WHO Chemical Risk Assessment Network. “There was demand for better harmonization of methods used, to adapt methods for new technologies and to increase capacity in countries through sharing experiences. WHO worked with international experts to develop a framework for how international collaboration in chemical risk assessment could be increased.”
Beginning in 2010, participants at the WHO International Meeting on Strengthening Global Collaboration in Chemical Risk Assessment identified several key actions to support chemical risk assessment, including establishing a WHO chemical risk assessment network.
“For the last 5 years or so, NIEHS has been heavily involved and working closely with WHO to build a network that would benefit all members and build capacity in developing countries by connecting them with researchers around the world,” said Weis, who serves as the NIEHS representative to the Network.
In early 2012, WHO representatives surveyed risk assessment institutions to identify priority concerns and capacity building needs, and solicit input on each institution’s potential role within a new global network. Later that year, progress continued at the WHO International Meeting on Global Collaboration in Chemical Risk Assessment: Strengthening Capacity Building and Networking in Bonn, Germany.
In 2013, WHO officially established the Chemical Risk Assessment Network, focusing on building technical capacity and providing communication and training opportunities related to chemical exposure and toxicity, the Network is organized by the WHO International Program for Chemical Safety to provide a forum for scientific and technical exchange across the globe.
“Every nation has its own challenges related to chemical risk assessment and risk management,” said Weis, who co-chairs the Network steering committee. “Network members collaboratively develop common frameworks and share information across borders, providing a common body of knowledge for all.”
Sharing Progress and Shaping Future Directions
Hosted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Network held its second in-person meeting in Parma, Italy in June 2017. Bringing together 63 chemical risk assessment institutions from 39 countries, Network members met face-to-face to learn and share ideas. The event included networking opportunities, trainings, and updates from network workgroups, and allowed members to discuss and shape the workplan to shape the Network’s future.
“The Parma meeting was a wonderful opportunity for Network members to discuss research needs, share experiences, and update the group on ongoing efforts in chemical risk assessment,” Weis noted.
Network workgroups reported on their progress since the first Network meeting in 2014. These included Combined Exposures and Chemical Mixtures, Human Biomonitoring, Systematic Review Methods, and Chemical Specific Adjustment Factors.
On the first day of the meeting, discussions and breakout groups focused on identifying capacity building needs and approaches to guide the development of training activities in the near future.
Building Capacity in Areas with Greatest Need
“Resources and capacities for chemical risk assessment vary greatly between countries,” said Brown. “There are insufficient qualified and experienced staff in developing countries, which hampers effective chemicals management in those countries. Training opportunities for risk assessment are very fragmented, and the training and methods available may not be suitable for use in low resource settings. The role of WHO is to partner with other organizations to increase access to suitable training for countries with the greatest needs.”
At the first Network meeting, a Sub-Network of Developing Countries was proposed to address capacity building specific to their interests and needs. A group of institutions from developing countries met the following year to discuss these needs, and how Network institutions could support their efforts in chemical risk assessment.
Building on this, Network members discussed a Strategic Plan for enhancing chemical risk assessment capacity, focusing on capacity building in developing countries at the 2017 meeting.
For example, they discussed actions that could help promote best chemical risk assessment practices, including holding at least one event per year focused on:
- Developing the technical priorities of developing countries.
- Promoting representation of developing country members at technical meetings.
- Ensuring that final products are relevant to developing countries.
The group also identified supporting regional, in-country, and webinar training courses that address priority topics for developing countries as important for supporting the development of human resources.
“Network members have collaborated to develop and deliver training around the world and online,” said Weis. “One of our goals is to expand training in areas of specific interest to members, including areas of interest to our members from developing nations.”
To support developing and leveraging technical resources, the group discussed maintaining a platform to share important procedures and protocols, including those designed for use in low-resource settings. An existing example is the WHO Human Health Risk Assessment Toolkit.
Golebaone Senai from the Ministry of Health in Botswana, who attended the meeting in Parma, expressed how the meeting enriched her perspective and provided an important opportunity for participating countries. “Particularly coming from a developing country, attending the Chemical Risk Assessment Network meeting was an eye opener,” Senai said. “It is a unique platform for collaboration, information exchange, and capacity building. This is particularly important for developing countries, which may not be on the same level of understanding with developed countries. The network provides a mechanism for developing countries to benefit from the expertise, and experience of developed countries.”
Looking to the Future
The June 2017 Network Meeting supported continuing work in multiple areas, as well as the development of new activities and tools relating to chemical risk assessment, and opportunities to share experiences. The WHO Secretariat will work with partners to scope the new activities, identify project leads and ensure that as many activities as can be accommodated with the resources available are taken forward over the next 2-3 years. Recruitment to the Network, especially from developing countries, will also continue.
“One area we are really seeking to develop and strengthen is increasing the involvement of members in the health sector,” said Weis. “For example, it is really important for those working in hospitals or poison control centers to understand how the environment and exposure to different chemicals in the environment influences disease.”
“We were very pleased to have active participation from individuals representing poison control centers from the developing world at the meeting in Parma, and we look forward to their continued involvement in the future.”
The Network also aims to continue building a collaborative workspace and improving risk communication. Finally, the group is discussing establishing a coordination mechanism for developing country initiated projects.
Institutions interested in joining the Network can contact WHO-IPCS at firstname.lastname@example.org.