Biomarkers of exposure in environment-wide association studies - Opportunities to decode the exposome using human biomonitoring data

Environ Res. 2018 Jul:164:597-624. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2018.02.041. Epub 2018 Apr 5.


Background: The European Union's 7th Framework Programme (EU's FP7) project HEALS - Health and Environment-wide Associations based on Large Population Surveys - aims a refinement of the methodology to elucidate the human exposome. Human biomonitoring (HBM) provides a valuable tool for understanding the magnitude of human exposure from all pathways and sources. However, availability of specific biomarkers of exposure (BoE) is limited.

Objectives: The objective was to summarize the availability of BoEs for a broad range of environmental stressors and exposure determinants and corresponding reference and exposure limit values and biomonitoring equivalents useful for unraveling the exposome using the framework of environment-wide association studies (EWAS).

Methods: In a face-to-face group discussion, scope, content, and structure of the HEALS deliverable "Guidelines for appropriate BoE selection for EWAS studies" were determined. An expert-driven, distributed, narrative review process involving around 30 individuals of the HEALS consortium made it possible to include extensive information targeted towards the specific characteristics of various environmental stressors and exposure determinants. From the resulting 265 page report, targeted information about BoE, corresponding reference values (e.g., 95th percentile or measures of central tendency), exposure limit values (e.g., the German HBM I and II values) and biomonitoring equivalents (BEs) were summarized and updated.

Results: 64 individual biological, chemical, physical, psychological and social environmental stressors or exposure determinants were included to fulfil the requirements of EWAS. The list of available BoEs is extensive with a number of 135; however, 12 of the stressors and exposure determinants considered do not leave any measurable specific substance in accessible body specimens. Opportunities to estimate the internal exposure stressors not (yet) detectable in human specimens were discussed.

Conclusions: Data about internal exposures are useful to decode the exposome. The paper provides extensive information for EWAS. Information included serves as a guideline - snapshot in time without any claim to comprehensiveness - to interpret HBM data and offers opportunities to collect information about the internal exposure of stressors if no specific BoE is available.

Keywords: Biomarkers of exposure; Biomonitoring equivalents; Environment-wide association studies; Exposure limit values; Human biomonitoring; Reference values.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers*
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Monitoring*
  • European Union
  • Humans
  • Reference Values


  • Biomarkers