Assessing risk of bias in human environmental epidemiology studies using three tools: different conclusions from different tools

Syst Rev. 2020 Oct 29;9(1):249. doi: 10.1186/s13643-020-01490-8.


Background: Systematic reviews are increasingly prevalent in environmental health due to their ability to synthesize evidence while reducing bias. Different systematic review methods have been developed by the US National Toxicology Program's Office of Health Assessment and Translation (OHAT), the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), and by the US EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), including the approach to assess risk of bias (ROB), one of the most vital steps which is used to evaluate internal validity of the studies. Our objective was to compare the performance of three tools (OHAT, IRIS, TSCA) in assessing ROB.

Methods: We selected a systematic review on polybrominated diphenyl ethers and intelligence quotient and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because it had been endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences. Two reviewers followed verbatim instructions from the tools and independently applied each tool to assess ROB in 15 studies previously identified. We documented the time to apply each tool and the impact the ROB ratings for each tool had on the final rating of the quality of the overall body of evidence.

Results: The time to complete the ROB assessments varied widely (mean = 20, 32, and 40 min per study for the OHAT, IRIS, and TSCA tools, respectively). All studies were rated overall "low" or "uninformative" using IRIS, due to "deficient" or "critically deficient" ratings in one or two domains. Similarly, all studies were rated "unacceptable" using the TSCA tool because of one "unacceptable" rating in a metric related to statistical power. Approximately half of the studies had "low" or "probably low ROB" ratings across all domains with the OHAT and Navigation Guide tools.

Conclusions: Tools that use overall ROB or study quality ratings, such as IRIS and TSCA, may reduce the available evidence to assess the harms of environmental exposures by erroneously excluding studies, which leads to inaccurate conclusions about the quality of the body of evidence. We recommend using ROB tools that circumvents these issues, such as OHAT and Navigation Guide.

Systematic review registration: This review has not been registered as it is not a systematic review.

Keywords: Critical appraisal; Evidence evaluation; Quality assessment; Risk assessment; Risk of bias; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Environmental Health*
  • Humans
  • Research Design*
  • Research Report
  • Risk Assessment