Leveraging Epidemiology to Improve Risk Assessment

Keeve E. Nachman*, 1, 2, Mary A. Fox2, Mary C. Sheehan2, Thomas A. Burke1, 2, Joseph V. Rodricks3, Tracey J. Woodruff4
1 Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
2 Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore,Maryland, USA
3 ENVIRON International Corp., Arlington, Virginia, USA
4 Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and ReproductiveSciences, University of California, San Francisco, California, USA

© 2011E. Nachman et al..

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Center for a Livable Future, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe Street, Room W7013, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA ;Tel: (410)-502-7578; Fax: (410)-502-7579;E-mail: knachman@jhsph.ed


The field of environmental public health is at an important crossroad. Our current biomonitoring efforts document widespread exposure to a host of chemicals for which toxicity information is lacking. At the same time, advances in the fields of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, genetics and epigenetics are yielding volumes of data at a rapid pace. Our ability to detect chemicals in biological and environmental media has far outpaced our ability to interpret their health relevance, and as a result, the environmental risk paradigm, in its current state, is antiquated and ill-equipped to make the best use of these new data. In light of new scientific developments and the pressing need to characterize the public health burdens of chemicals, it is imperative to reinvigorate the use of environmental epidemiology in chemical risk assessment. Two case studies of chemical assessments from the Environmental Protection Agency Integrated Risk Information System database are presented to illustrate opportunities where epidemiologic data could have been used in place of experimental animal data in dose-response assessment, or where different approaches, techniques, or studies could have been employed to better utilize existing epidemiologic evidence. Based on the case studies and what can be learned from recent scientific advances and improved approaches to utilizing human data for dose-response estimation, recommendations are provided for the disciplines of epidemiology and risk assessment for enhancing the role of epidemiologic data in hazard identification and dose-response assessment.

Keywords: Risk assessment, epidemiology, methylmercury, phthalates, di-butyl phthalate, dose-response assessment, developmental toxicity, reproductive toxicity, EPA, Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), cardiovascular disease.