Assessing How Social Exposures Are Integrated in Exposome Research: A Scoping Review

Environ Health Perspect. 2022 Nov;130(11):116001. doi: 10.1289/EHP11015. Epub 2022 Nov 9.


Background: Exposome research aims to describe and understand the extent to which all the exposures in human environments may affect our health over the lifetime. However, the way in which humans interact with their environment is socially patterned. Failing to account for social factors in research exploring the exposome may underestimate the magnitude of the effect of exposures or mask inequalities in the distribution of both exposures and outcomes.

Objectives: We aimed to describe the extent to which social factors appear in the exposome literature, the manner in which they are used in empirical analyses and statistical modeling, and the way in which they are considered in the overall scientific approach.

Methods: We conducted a scoping review of the literature using three databases (PubMed, Embase, and Web of Science) up to January 2022. We grouped studies based on the way in which the social variables were used in the analyses and quantified the type and frequency of social variables mentioned in the articles. We also qualitatively described the scientific approach used by authors to integrate social variables.

Results: We screened 1,001 records, and 73 studies were included in the analysis. Fifty-five (75%) used social variables as exposures or confounders or both, and a wide array of social variables were represented in the articles. Individual-level social variables were more often found, especially education and race/ethnicity, as well as neighborhood-level deprivation indices. Half of the studies used a hypothesis-free approach and the other half, a hypothesis-driven approach. However, in the latter group, of 35 studies, only 8 reported and discussed at least one possible social mechanism underlying the relationship observed between the social variable and the outcome.

Discussion: Social factors in exposome research should be considered in a more systematic way, considering their role in structuring both the specific external and the internal exposome. Doing so could help to understand the mechanisms of construction and, potentially, alleviate social inequalities in health and mitigate the emergence of new ones.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Environmental Exposure / analysis
  • Exposome*
  • Humans
  • PubMed
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Socioeconomic Factors