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Implications of the exposome for exposure science


During the 1920s, the forerunners of exposure science collaborated with health professionals to investigate the causes of occupational diseases. With the birth of U.S. regulatory agencies in the 1970s, interest in the environmental origins of human diseases waned, and exposure scientists focused instead upon levels of selected contaminants in air and water. In fact, toxic chemicals enter the body not only from exogenous sources (air, water, diet, drugs, and radiation) but also from endogenous processes, including inflammation, lipid peroxidation, oxidative stress, existing diseases, infections, and gut flora. Thus, even though current evidence suggests that non-genetic factors contribute about 90% of the risks of chronic diseases, we have not explored the vast majority of human exposures that might initiate disease processes. The concept of the exposome, representing the totality of exposures received by a person during life, encompasses all sources of toxicants and, therefore, offers scientists an agnostic approach for investigating the environmental causes of chronic diseases. In this context, it is appropriate to regard the “environment” as the body's internal chemical environment and to define “exposures” as levels of biologically active chemicals in this internal environment. To explore the exposome, it makes sense to employ a top-down approach based upon biomonitoring (e.g. blood sampling) rather than a bottom-up approach that samples air, water, food, and so on. Because sources and levels of exposure change over time, exposomes can be constructed by analyzing toxicants in blood specimens obtained during critical stages of life. Initial investigations could use archived blood from prospective cohort studies to measure important classes of toxic chemicals, notably, reactive electrophiles, metals, metabolic products, hormone-like substances, and persistent organic compounds. The exposome offers health scientists an avenue for integrating research that is currently fractured along lines related to particular diseases and risk factors, and can thereby promote discovery of the key exposures responsible for chronic diseases. By embracing the exposome as its operational paradigm, exposure science can play a major role in discovering and mitigating these exposures.

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I am grateful for the assistance of Dana Boyd Barr in compiling the JESEE statistics mentioned in this commentary. I also appreciate helpful discussions with Martyn Smith, Christopher Wild, Thomas McKone, and Tina Bahadori. The author acknowledges support through Grant U54ES016115 from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

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Correspondence to Stephen M Rappaport.

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Rappaport, S. Implications of the exposome for exposure science. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 21, 5–9 (2011).

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  • exposome
  • internal chemical environment
  • disease risks

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