Aim and Objectives

The challenge

EU law and the need for biomonitoring

EU law on human and veterinary medicinal products (EC 2001, 2004a,b), industrial chemicals (EC 2006), plant protection products (PPPs) (EC 2009) and biocidal products (EU 2012) as well as aspects of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) (EC 2000), Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) (EC 2008) and Environmental Liability Directive (EC 2004c) aim to prevent and limit negative impacts of chemicals on human health and the environment. These laws are supplemented by global and regional conventions to which the EU, Member States and other European countries are party, such as the Helsinki Convention on the Baltic Sea (1992), OSPAR Convention on the NE Atlantic (1992), Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (2001) and Minamata Convention on mercury (Hg) (2013).

Notwithstanding these laws and their implementation, environmental contaminants continue to impose very high costs on human and wildlife health; the annual burden and disease costs of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the EU, for example, has been estimated at €157 billion (1.23% of EU GDP; Trasande et al 2015). Better knowledge on real-world bioaccumulation of contaminants can significantly reduce these costs by addressing three needs: (1) Enhancing evaluation of the effectiveness of regulation, targeting any necessary adjustments to regulation and/or implementation and thereby mitigating negative impacts. While efforts are being made to develop pan-European human biomonitoring, there is at present inadequate equivalent monitoring of wildlife to enable such effectiveness evaluation (van den Brink et al 2016). (2) Enhancing reliable risk assessment of chemicals. There is at present a paucity of data on real-world bioaccumulation to properly inform risk assessment once chemicals are on the market. While more than 100,000 chemical products are in common use, there is exhaustive knowledge of less than 2% of these (Garmendia et al 2015). Hundreds of high production volume chemicals on the market cannot be properly risk assessed due to insufficient data quality of registered dossiers (Springer et al 2015). (3) Providing early warning of emerging contaminant problems. Certain animal groups, sensitive to contaminants can, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, be used as sentinels of emerging contaminant problems; the early detection of a single problem can pre-empt costs that could run to billions of Euros.

How ERBFacility meets these needs

ERBFacility aims to meet these three needs by using raptors as sentinels of environmental contamination. It will thus help answer three questions: (1) are European and relevant global and regional chemicals laws and conventions effective in reducing environmental exposure to contaminants; (2) what are the environmental risks of specific chemicals; (3) are there emerging contaminant problems needing remedial action? The value of birds as sentinels of environmental contamination has been broadly recognised (Grasman et al 1998, Newton et al 1993, Rattner 2009, van Wyk et al 2001). Raptors (birds of prey) are especially suitable for monitoring (very) persistent (very) bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT/vPvB) chemicals in Europe because they are widespread, typically long-lived apex predators which integrate contaminant exposure over time and over large spatial areas, encompass a range of specialist and generalist food chains, are particularly sensitive to environmental contaminants and among the first organisms to exhibit readily observable responses (Sergio et al 2005, 2006, Movalli et al 2008). Indeed, the European Parliament has stressed ‘the need to monitor bioaccumulation of [PBT/vPvB] pollutants through the use of…top predators in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments’ (EP 2007). Examples of contaminant problems revealed by raptors include heavy metal-induced immune system impairment (e.g. Blanco et al 2004, Lutz et al 1999), polychlorinated-biphenyl (PCB) induced impacts on reproduction (e.g. Safe 1984, Fernie et al 2001, Rattner et al 2014, Rattner 2009), toxicity associated with lead (Pb) shot in game (e.g. Pain et al 2010) and toxicity associated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs; e.g. Green et al 2004).

Three inter-linked 'arenas' - analysis, collections, field

The delivery of raptor biomonitoring requires research coordination and capacity-building in three inter-linked ‘arenas’:

  1. The Analysis Arena; A recent overview of contaminant monitoring with raptors in Europe (Gomez-Ramirez et al 2014) found substantial activity (Figure 1) that could underpin the development of pan-European monitoring of environmental contaminants, but there is an absence of necessary networking and coordination among ecotoxicologists and analytical laboratories, decision-makers and regulatory agencies.
  2. The Collections Arena; while many natural history museums (NHMs), environmental specimen banks (ESBs) and other collections across Europe hold many thousands of relevant raptor samples offering potential to determine contaminant trends over time and space (in particular given recent advances in analytical techniques), realizing this potential requires networking and coordination among NHM/ESB curators and ecotoxicologists.
  3. The Field Arena; a recent overview of ecological research on and monitoring of raptor populations (Vrezec et al 2012) found considerable activity across Europe (e.g. addressing 90% of the 56 breeding species), but this is not yet being harnessed for sampling of raptor tissues and harmonised gathering of relevant field data in support of contaminant research – this requires networking and coordination among field ornithologists (professionals, amateurs) involved in field monitoring of raptors (population studies, nest recording, ringing), ecotoxicologists and NHM/ESB curators.


ERBFacility aims to design and build key elements of a distributed ‘facility’ that enables pan-European raptor biomonitoring to enhance evaluation of effectiveness of chemicals regulations and conventions, enhance risk assessment of specific chemicals and provide early warning of emerging contaminant problems.

The key elements of this facility relate to the analytical, collections and field arenas introduced above and include, respectively: (a) a network of analytical laboratories able to perform the necessary ecotoxicological analyses; (b) a network of collections storing and cataloguing the necessary raptor samples; (c) a network of NGOs and field ornithologists gathering additional samples and contextual field data. The three research coordination and three capacity building objectives below relate respectively to these three networks and are interdependent. Together, these objectives will enable a new generation of research on environmental biomonitoring using raptors as key sentinel species.

Specific objectives

Research coordination objectives

  • Objective R1: To assess current capacities for pan-European raptor biomonitoring and develop a framework for a European Raptor Biomonitoring Scheme (ERBioMS). The assessment will focus on current capabilities to detect temporal and spatial trends in contaminant exposure (and, where feasible, effects), focussing on 4-6 selected contaminants, and on identifying key areas of weakness (in the absence of coordination). Building on the insights delivered by this assessment, and on very recent research (Espin et al 2016), ERBFacility will develop an ERBioMS framework capable of delivering pan-European surveillance and monitoring of key pollutants under EU chemicals law and relevant global and regional conventions. The framework will identify, in relation to each regulation/convention, candidate raptor species and sample matrices. Development of read-across methods between species is likely to be necessary because the ranges of individual raptor species may not be pan-European and so monitoring would require measurements in complementary species.
  • Objective R2: To develop a framework for a distributed European Raptor Specimen Bank (ERSpeB) for contaminant monitoring. Existing raptor specimen collections in NHMs and ESBs have only in a very few cases been made with contaminant monitoring in mind; those collections which are designed to meet contaminant monitoring needs are national in scale (e.g. UK Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme [Walker et al. 2008]). There is therefore a need to develop an ERSpeB framework to link and expand existing collections and, where appropriate, propose new regional collections, to meet ERBioMS needs.
  • Objective R3: To develop a framework, standards and protocols for a European Raptor Sampling Programme (ERSamP). The ERSamP framework will provide for collection of the right raptor samples from the right locations at the right times. Standards and protocols will ensure harmonised sampling methods (not least, to minimise impacts on raptors) and harmonised recording of relevant field data (to support interpretation of contaminant exposure data in terms of effects on raptors at individual and population levels).

Capacity-building objectives

  • Objective C1: To build capacity in the ‘analysis arena’ through networking and collaboration among ecotoxicologists, collaborating laboratories and regulators, including through: (a) collaborative work on objective R1 (assessment, ERBioMS framework); (b) piloting joint assessment and reporting between collaborating labs to deliver proof of concept; (c) developing guidance to integrate reports with regulatory assessments of relevant regulatory bodies (e.g. ECHA, EFSA, national competent authorities).
  • Objective C2: To build capacity in the ‘collections arena’ through networking and collaboration among ecotoxicologists and raptor collections (NHMs, ESBs, etc), including through: (a) constructing a meta-database of existing raptor specimens and of any existing related contaminant data, and stimulating digitisation of collections, to enhance access and use for contaminant monitoring; (b) stimulating expansion of raptor collections. Construction of the database will involve developing standards for digital description and online publication of raptor samples and related data, and developing systems and protocols for web-based exchange, analysis and visualization (mapping) of these data.
  • Objective C3: To build capacity in the ‘field arena’ through networking and collaboration among field ornithologists, raptor collections and ecotoxicologists, including by: (a) stimulating and harmonising collection of raptor samples and of key contextual data on raptor reproduction, survival and other field data relevant to interpretation of data on contaminant exposure, in support of ERBioMS; (b) testing the framework, standards and protocols in the field through networks of professionals and volunteers, to deliver proof of concept.

The research coordination and capacity building objectives are inter-linked. There are also inter-linkages among the research coordination objectives (e.g. the ERSpeB and ERSamP developed under R2 and R3 respectively should meet the needs of the ERBioMS developed under R1, while the ERBioMS must take into account the realities of ERSpeB and ERSamP) and among the capacity-building objectives (e.g. development of capacities of analytical labs under C1 will need to take account of raptor collections capacities under C2 and raptor sampling capacities under C3).



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