Societal and ethical issues in human biomonitoring--a view from science studies

Environ Health. 2008 Jun 5;7 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S10. doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-7-S1-S10.


Background: Human biomonitoring (HBM) has rapidly gained importance. In some epidemiological studies, the measurement and use of biomarkers of exposure, susceptibility and disease have replaced traditional environmental indicators. While in HBM, ethical issues have mostly been addressed in terms of informed consent and confidentiality, this paper maps out a larger array of societal issues from an epistemological perspective, i.e. bringing into focus the conditions of how and what is known in environmental health science.

Methods: In order to analyse the effects of HBM and the shift towards biomarker research in the assessment of environmental pollution in a broader societal context, selected analytical frameworks of science studies are introduced. To develop the epistemological perspective, concepts from "biomedical platform sociology" and the notion of "epistemic cultures" and "thought styles" are applied to the research infrastructures of HBM. Further, concepts of "biocitizenship" and "civic epistemologies" are drawn upon as analytical tools to discuss the visions and promises of HBM as well as related ethical problematisations.

Results: In human biomonitoring, two different epistemological cultures meet; these are environmental science with for instance pollution surveys and toxicological assessments on the one hand, and analytical epidemiology investigating the association between exposure and disease in probabilistic risk estimation on the other hand. The surveillance of exposure and dose via biomarkers as envisioned in HBM is shifting the site of exposure monitoring to the human body. Establishing an HBM platform faces not only the need to consider individual decision autonomy as an ethics issue, but also larger epistemological and societal questions, such as the mode of evidence demanded in science, policy and regulation.

Conclusion: The shift of exposure monitoring towards the biosurveillance of human populations involves fundamental changes in the ways environment, health and disease are conceptualised; this may lead to an individualisation of responsibilities for health risks and preventive action. Attention to the conditions of scientific knowledge generation and to their broader societal context is critical in order to make HBM contribute to environmental justice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ecology
  • Environmental Monitoring / ethics*
  • Epidemiological Monitoring
  • Epidemiology
  • Ethics, Research*
  • Human Experimentation / ethics*
  • Humans