Uncertainty in human health risk evaluation of chemicals of emerging concern

Contact: Jerry Achar

As we go about our daily lives, we are ubiquitously exposed to a wide range of chemicals derived from industrial and consumer products such as plastics, foam, electronic equipment, as well as pharmaceuticals, and pesticides. Exposure to these chemical toxicants via the air we breathe, our food, and our drinking water is associated with adverse health risks like cancer, endocrine disruption, and reproductive disorders. Chemicals of emerging concern (CEC) are toxicants that are potentially threatening human health, but there is a lack of sufficient evidence whether or not this is the case. This makes uncertainty an integral part of the human risk evaluation process. A challenge is that scientists have diverging views on how much weight to give to different types of uncertainty when evaluating the risk, meaning that the type of uncertainty that is deemed relevant to include or exclude in the risk evaluation and communication processes depends on which scientist one asks.

The overarching aim of this research project is to develop a comprehensive model that can be used to identify and characterize types of uncertainty included and excluded in the CEC risk evaluation process. The project focuses on epistemic uncertainty and uses perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) as the cases for CEC.

The overall goal of this research project is to increase transparency on how scientific knowledge in the risk of CEC is produced and utilized to inform regulatory decisions and policies on chemical management.