EPA Science Matters Newsletter: Exposure Science in the 21st Century
Published October 2014
EPA researchers are advancing the science of how people encounter environmental contaminants.
Anyone who has ever had a nasty sunburn has first-hand knowledge of the links between environmental exposures and human health. Too much unprotected time in the sun can mean too much exposure to ultraviolet light. The health effect is burned, painful skin now, and an increased risk for trouble down the road. The more exposure, the higher the risk.
Lowering such risks and helping people to be “Sunwise” is just one of the many ways in which EPA works to protect public health. But most environmental exposures are not as easy to quantify and understand as sunlight. How we encounter and interact with multiple pollutants, contaminants, and potentially harmful chemicals in our air, water, food, and land can be far more challenging.
EPA researchers are working to meet that challenge. They are advancing exposure science to support Agency actions to lower risks and better protect human health. “Without exposure to pollutants and other environmental stressors, there is no risk, so advancing the science of exposure helps guide much of our other research programs,” explains Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, Director of EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory.
Orme-Zavaleta is helping lead the Agency’s efforts on a long-range strategy that takes full advantage of the wealth of data streams and other information flowing from a wide range of sources. These include the proliferation of new technologies, low cost sensors and monitors, and emerging state-of-the science environmental and human health investigations, including genomics and informatics.
The vision for that strategy stems from a 2010 report, Exposure Science in the 21st Century, commissioned by EPA with additional support from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. It was produced by an independent panel of scientists convened by the National Academies’ National Research Council (NRC).
“The NRC helped us and our partners re-conceptualize exposure science in more comprehensive, dynamic light. We’re now incorporating innovative methods to deeply explore questions such as: what are the things that people do to come into contact with stressors in their environment? We are looking at novel sources of data we can utilize to find answers, everything from remote sensing and global positioning to personal sensors, real-time measurements, and even citizen science.”
As part of the new exposure science strategy, EPA researchers are also advancing models that incorporate the wealth of data gathered from the sources mentioned above. The models will provide better insight into environmental exposures, and are being designed so that they can be tailored to support local communities solve problems and reduce risk.
Already, the Agency has aligned a host of research activities to meet the 21st Century exposure science outlined in the NRC’s report. Some examples being developed are:
- Molecular technologies and biomarkers to measure signatures of human and ecosystem exposures to environmental stressors (i.e., Saliva-based methods for detecting exposure to waterborne pathogens);
- Predictive models for understanding exposures to chemicals and other environmental pollutants (i.e., EPA’s Stochastic Human Exposure and Dose Model (SHEDS) and the Community Multi-Scale Air Quality Model (CMAQ);
- Tools for communities to identify and manage important health risks, (i.e., EPA’s Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST) and the Tribal-Focused Environmental Risk and Sustainability Tool (T-FERST);
- Models and tools to evaluate exposures to tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce (i.e., Expocast);
- Evaluation and application of sensor technologies and crowd-sourcing techniques to rapidly collect real-time information to be used by individuals and communities;
- State-of-the art methods for monitoring chemicals and microbials in water, air, food, soil, dust (i.e. DNA-based method for determining safety of recreational water, and analytical methods for measuring contaminants in drinking water);
- EnviroAtlas, a collection of interactive tools and resources that allows users to explore the many benefits people receive from nature, often referred to as “ecosystem services.”
- Development of new testing methods for determining bioavailability of chemicals in soil at Superfund sites.
While you don’t need to have endured a sunburn to appreciate how the above is advancing EPA’s ability to protect human health, it’s easy to see how such innovation has the potential to reduce risks to environmental exposures. The impact promises to be just as important as staying out of the sun for too long.