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Unit 6: Risk, Exposure, and Health // Section 3: Measuring Exposure to Environmental Hazards

Many hazardous materials are present in our environment, but some are more likely to cause actual harm than others. Humans come into contact with harmful agents in many ways. For example, we may inhale gases and particulates as we breathe, eat fruit that carries pesticide residues, drink polluted water, touch contaminated soils, or absorb radiation or chemical vapors through our skin. In each case, risk analysts want to measure several variables.

Exposure assessments describe how frequently contact occurs, how long it lasts, its intensity (i.e., how concentrated the contaminant is), and the route by which contaminants enter the body (Fig. 7). They may also estimate dose, although if there is a known relationship between exposure to a specific hazard and how the body responds, a study may simply estimate the target group's exposure and use existing knowledge to calculate the average dose members have received.

Exposure pathways for radioactive chemicals and materials from a nuclear waste storage facility

Figure 7. Exposure pathways for radioactive chemicals and materials from a nuclear waste storage facility
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Source: Courtesy United States Department of Energy/Hanford Site.

As this summary indicates, exposure assessment is a painstaking multi-step process that requires a lot of data. Researchers need to know the contaminant's physical and chemical properties, the form in which it occurs locally, the medium by which it comes into contact with humans, and how concentrated it is within that medium. They also need to know the demographics of the exposed population, major routes of exposure for that group, and relevant behavior and lifestyle issues, such as how many people smoke cigarettes or filter their tap water. And calculating the human impact of contact with hazardous agents requires detailed knowledge of physiology and toxicology.

Even when people ingest a contaminant or absorb it through their skin, much analysis is required to determine how they may be affected. Once an internal dose of a chemical is absorbed into the bloodstream, it becomes distributed among various tissues, fluids, and organs, a process called partition. Depending on the contaminant's physical and chemical properties, it can be stored, transported, metabolized, or excreted. Many contaminants that are highly soluble in water are excreted relatively quickly, but some, such as mercury, cadmium, and lead, bind tightly to specific organs. Agents that are not highly soluble in water, such as organochlorine insecticides, tend to move into fatty tissues and accumulate.

The portion of an internal dose that actually reaches a biologically sensitive site within the body is called the delivered dose. To calculate delivered doses, researchers start by mapping how toxic substances move through the body and how they react with various types of tissues. For example, combustion of diesel fuel produces a carcinogenic compound called 1,3-butadiene. When humans inhale this colorless gas, it can pass through the alveolar walls in the lungs and enter the bloodstream, where it binds readily to lipids and is likely to move to other parts of the body. Experimental studies have shown that subjects who ate ice cream with a high fat content a few hours before inhaling low concentrations of 1,3-butadiene had reduced levels of the compound in their exhaled breath, demonstrating that more of the gas could partition to the lipid fraction of the body.

The delivered dose is the measurement most closely related to expected harms from exposure, so estimating delivered doses is central to exposure assessment. The most common methods are measuring blood concentrations or using PBPK (Physiologically-Based Pharmacokinetic) models. This approach simulates the time course of contaminant tissue concentrations in humans by dividing the body into a series of compartments based on how quickly they take up and release the substance. Using known values for physical functions like respiration, it estimates how quickly the agent will move through a human body and how much will be stored, metabolized, and excreted at various stages. Figure 8 shows a conceptual PBPK model (without calculated results) for intravenous or oral exposure to hexachlorobenzene, a synthetic pesticide.

Conceptual PBPK model for hexachlorobenzene exposure

Figure 8. Conceptual PBPK model for hexachlorobenzene exposure
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Source: Colorado State University /

Even when it relies on techniques like PBPK modeling, exposure assessment requires analysts to make assumptions, estimates, and judgments. Scientists often have to work with incomplete data. For example, in reconstructing exposures that have already taken place, they have to determine how much of a contaminant may have been ingested or inhaled, which can be done by interviewing subjects, analyzing their environment, or physical testing if exposure is recent enough and the contaminant leaves residues that can be measured in blood, hair, or other biological materials. Some contaminants are easier to measure precisely in the environment than others, and relevant conditions such as weather and soil characteristics may vary over time or across the sample area.

To help users evaluate their results, exposure assessments include at least a qualitative description (plus quantitative estimates in some cases) of uncertainty factors that affect their findings. Addressing uncertainty ultimately makes the process of risk analysis stronger because it can point out areas where more research is needed and make a individual study's implications and limitations clear. As the EPA states in its current exposure assessment guidelines, "Essentially, the construction of scientifically sound exposure assessments and the analysis of uncertainty go hand in hand" (footnote 8).

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