An Overview of Human Exposure Modeling Activities at the U.S. EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory

The computational modeling of human exposure to environmental pollutants is one of the primary activities of the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)'s National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL). Assessment of human exposures is a critical part of the overall risk assessment paradigm. In exposure assessment, we analyze the source-to-dose sequence of processes, in which pollutants are released from sources into the environment, where they may move through multiple environmental media, and to human receptors via multiple pathways. Exposure occurs at the environment-human interface, where pollutants are contacted in the course of human activities. Exposure may result in a dose, by which chemicals enter the body through multiple portals of entry, primarily inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption. Within the body, absorbed pollutants are distributed to, metabolized within, and eliminated from various organs and tissues, where they may cause toxicologic responses or adverse health effects. The NERL's modeling efforts are directed at improving our understanding of this sequence of processes, by characterizing the various factors influencing exposures and dose, and their associated variabilities and uncertainties. Modeling at the NERL is one of three essential programmatic elements, along with measurements and methods development. These are pursued interactively to advance our understanding of exposure-related processes. Exposure models are developed and run using the best currently available measurement data to simulate and predict population exposure and dose distributions, and to identify the most important factors and their variabilities and uncertainties. This knowledge is then used to guide the development of improved methods and measurements needed to obtain better data to improve the assessment and reduce critical uncertainties. These models and measurement results are tools that can be used in risk assessments and in risk management decisions in order to reduce harmful exposures. Current areas of the NERL's exposure modeling emphasis include:
  • Pollutant concentrations in ambient (outdoor) air using the Third Generation Air Quality Modeling System's Community Multiscale Air Quality model (Models-3/CMAQ);
  • Air flow and pollutant concentrations at local and microenvironmental scales using computational fluid dynamics (CFD);
  • Human inhalation exposure to airborne particulate matter, air toxics, and multipathway exposure to pesticides, using the Stochastic Human Exposure and Dose Simulation (SHEDS) model;
  • Human and ecological exposure and risk assessments of hazardous waste sites using Framework for Risk Analysis in Multimedia Environmental Systems - Multimedia, Multipathway, Multireceptor Risk Assessment (FRAMES-3MRA), one of many software programs available from the NERL's Center for Exposure Assessment Modeling (CEAM);
  • Physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) modeling of pesticides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the Exposure-Related Dose-Estimating Model (ERDEM).
  • A brief historical overview of the NERL's evolution of human exposure models is presented, with examples of the present state-of-the-science represented by SHEDS and FRAMES-3MRA.


Furtaw, E. J. An Overview of Human Exposure Modeling Activities at the U.S. EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory. Toxicology and Environmental Health 17(5): 302-324, (2001).