Some Limitations of Aggregate Exposure Metrics
Aggregate exposure metrics based on sums or weighted averages of component exposures are widely used in risk assessments of complex mixtures, such as asbestos-associated dusts and fibers. Allowed exposure levels based on total particle or fiber counts and estimated ambient concentrations of such mixtures may be used to make costly risk-management decisions intended to protect human health and to remediate hazardous environments. We show that, in general, aggregate exposure information alone may be inherently unable to guide rational risk-management decisions when the components of the mixture differ significantly in potency and when the percentage compositions of the mixture exposures differ significantly across locations. Under these conditions, which are not uncommon in practice, aggregate exposure metrics may be “worse than useless,” in that risk-management decisions based on them are less effective than decisions that ignore the aggregate exposure information and select risk-management actions at random. The potential practical significance of these results is illustrated by a case study of 27 exposure scenarios in El Dorado Hills, California, where applying an aggregate unit risk factor (from EPA's IRIS database) to aggregate exposure metrics produces average risk estimates about 25 times greater—and of uncertain predictive validity—compared to risk estimates based on specific components of the mixture that have been hypothesized to pose risks of human lung cancer and mesothelioma.