What Can Be Done to Ensure the Usefulness of Epidemiologic Data for Risk Assessment Purposes?
Epidemiologic studies can play a central role in risk assessments. They are used in all risk assessment phases: hazard identification, dose-response, and exposure assessment. Epidemiologic studies have often been the first to show that a particular environmental exposure is a hazard to health. They have numerous advantages with respect to other sources of data which are used in risk assessments, the most important being that they do not require the assumption that they are generalizable to humans. For this reason, fewer and lower uncertainty factors may be appropriate in risk characterization based on epidemiologic studies. Unfortunately, epidemiologic studies have numerous problems, the most important being that the exposures are often not precisely measured. This article presents in detail the advantages of and problems with epidemiologic studies. It discusses two approaches to ensure their usefulness, biomarkers and an ordinance which requires baseline and subsequent surveillance of possible exposures and health effects from newly sited potentially polluting facilities. Biomarkers are biochemical measures of exposure, susceptibility factors, or preclinical pathological changes. Biomarkers are a way of dealing with the problems of poor measures, differential susceptibility and lack of early measures of disease occurrence that inherent in many environmental epidemiologic studies. The advantages of biomarkers is they can provide objective information on exposure days, months or even years later and evidence of pathology perhaps years earlier. The ordinance makes possible the use of a powerful epidemiologic study design, the prospective cohort study, where confounder(s) are best measured, and exposures, pathological changes, and health effects can be detected as soon as possible.