Expert Report

Exposure Science in the 21st Century: A Vision and a Strategy (2012)

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Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

From the use of personal products to our consumption of food, water, and air, people are exposed to a wide array of agents each day—many with the potential to affect health. Exposure science investigates the contact of humans or other organisms with those agents (that is, chemical, physical, and biologic stressors) and their fate in living systems. Exposure science has been instrumental in helping us understand how stressors affect human and ecosystem health, and in efforts to prevent or reduce contact with harmful stressors. In this way exposure science has played an integral role in many areas of environmental health, and can help meet growing needs in environmental regulation, urban and ecosystem planning, and disaster management. There are increasing demands for exposure science information, for example to meet needs for data on the thousands of chemicals introduced into the market each year, and to better understand the health effects of prolonged low-level exposure to stressors. Recent advances in tools and technologies—including sensor systems, analytic methods, molecular technologies, computational tools, and bioinformatics—have provided the potential for more accurate and comprehensive exposure science data than ever before. This report provides a roadmap to take advantage of the technologic innovations and strategic collaborations to move exposure science into the future.

Key Messages

  • Innovations in science and technology provide the potential for advances in exposure science. For example, cellular phone technology equipped with motion, audio, visual and location sensors and integrated with pollution measurement devices could be used to form sensing networks to collect personal exposure information on millions of people and ecosystems. Advances in genomic techniques and informatics can provide internal measures of exposures to multiple stressors in human populations and other organisms. However, the generation of large quantities of individualized exposure data might raise ethical considerations and issues of privacy protection.
  • New challenges and new scientific advances mean that an expanded, integrated vision of exposure science—one that considers exposures from source to dose, over time and space, to multiple stressors, and from the molecular to ecosystem level— is now needed. This vision, dubbed “the eco-exposome,” is defined as the extension of exposure science from the point of contact between stressor and receptor inward, into the organism; and outward, to the general environment including the ecosphere.
  • Achieving this broader vision for exposure science will require an investment of resources and a substantial shift in how exposure science research is conducted and its results implemented. Implementing the vision will require research, transagency coordination, and education and training.
  • The committee identified research needs that call for the development of existing and emerging methods and approaches, validation of methods and their enhancement for application on different scales and in broader circumstances, and improved linkages to research in other sectors of environmental health. The research needs are organized into several broad categories: research needed to develop effective responses to immediate and short-term public health and ecologic risks; supporting research that addresses past, current, and emerging outcomes; and addressing demands for exposure information among communities, governments, and industries. For each category, short-term (less than five years), intermediate-term (5-10 years), and long-term (10-20 years) goals are given.
  • Exposure science is relevant to the mission of many federal agencies, and improved collaboration across agencies would help accelerate progress by promoting greater access to, and sharing of data and resources. The committee considers that Tox21, a collaboration among federal agencies and international partners established in response to the 2007 National Research Council report Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century, could be extended to exposure science and lead to the creation of Exposure21. In addition to engaging those stakeholders involved in Tox21, engagement of other federal agencies would be important.
  • Effective implementation of the committee's vision will depend on the development and cultivation of scientists, engineers, and technical experts with experience in multiple fields, in order to educate the next generation of exposure scientists and to provide opportunities for members of other fields to cross-train in the techniques and models used to analyze and collect exposure data. This includes the need for:
    - An increase in the number of academic predoctoral and postdoctoral training programs in exposure science throughout the United States supported by training grants. NIEHS currently funds one training grant in exposure science; additional grants are needed.
    - Short-term training and certification programs in exposure science for midcareer scientists in related fields.
    - Development by federal agencies that support human and environmental exposure science, of educational programs to improve public understanding of exposure-assessment research, including ethical considerations involved in the research.
  • To engage broader audiences, including the public, the committee suggests developing user-friendly and less expensive monitoring equipment to allow trained community members to collect and upload their own data, in partnership with researchers. This strategy could improve the value of the exposure data collected and make more data available to help set priorities and inform policy.