Noncancer risk assessment: A probabilistic alternative to current practice

S. J. S. Baird, J. T. Cohen, J. D. Graham, A. I. Shlyakhter, J. S. Evans

Human and Ecological Risk Assessment 2(1): 79-102, March 1996


Based on imperfect data and theory, agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) currently derive "reference doses" (RfDs) to guide risk managers charged with ensuring that human exposures to chemicals are below population thresholds. The RfD for a chemical is typically reported as a single number, even though it is widely acknowledged that there are significant uncertainties inherent in the derivation of this number.

In this article, the authors propose a probabilistic alternative to the EPA's method that expresses the human population threshold as a probability distribution of values (rather than a single RfD value), taking into account the major sources of scientific uncertainty in such estimates. The approach is illustrated using much of the same data that USEPA uses to justify their current RfD procedure.

Like the EPA's approach, our approach recognizes the four key extrapolations that are necessary to define the human population threshold based on animal data: animal to human, human heterogeneity, LOAEL to NOAEL, and subchronic to chronic. Rather than using available data to define point estimates of "uncertainty factors" for these extrapolations, the proposed approach uses available data to define a probability distribution of adjustment factors. These initial characterizations of uncertainty can then be refined when more robust or specific data become available for a particular chemical or class of chemicals.

Quantitative characterization of uncertainty in noncancer risk assessment will be useful to risk managers who face complex trade-offs between control costs and protection of public health. The new approach can help decision-makers understand how much extra control cost must be expended to achieve a specified increase in confidence that the human population threshold is not being exceeded.

Keywords: reference dose, uncertainty, human population threshold, noncancer risk assessment

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