Researchers will develop a new framework for estimating the public health impact of environmental chemicals

A new research project, BurdenX, at DTU National Food Institute aims to develop a framework that allows for the calculation of yet unknown public health impacts of some environmental chemicals.

Researchers at DTU National Food Institute intend to develop a new framework to assess the public health impacts of environmental chemicals and thereby support policy formulation to reduce chemical exposures. This is the purpose of a new research project, BurdenX.

"We hope to be able to estimate the disease burden for some environmental chemicals for which it has not yet been possible. The focus of the new project is to incorporate new types of data into the calculations. Currently, we are primarily basing our calculations of the disease burden caused by environmental chemicals on epidemiological data, but they are not always sufficient or sensitive enough to establish a link between the chemical and a health outcome," says researcher at DTU National Food Institute and leader of the BurdenX project, Sofie Theresa Thomsen.

The project is aimed at environmental chemicals that have gained increased focus only in recent years. PFAS will be used as a case study, but the researchers hope that the method can also be applied to calculate the disease burden for many other environmental chemicals.

In addition to epidemiological data, the new method aims to include other types of data e.g. from lab experiments and mathematical models.

Disease burden is often expressed in Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs), which is also the expected resulting metric for the new method. DALYs combine data on mortality and morbidity into a single measure and are a measure of the number of healthy years of life lost. The estimated health impacts of environmental chemicals can be compared with and ranked against the health impacts of other risk factors.

Sofie Theresa Thomsen. Photo: DTU National Food Institute

Health consequences from environmental chemical exposures are difficult to detect

One of the challenges in estimating the health impacts of environmental chemicals is that people will typically not become ill from chemical substances before after many years of exposure. On the other hand, if someone is exposed to a pathogenic bacterium through food, illness will usually manifest almost immediately (e.g., vomiting and diarrhoea), making it possible to trace back to the bacteria and food that caused the disease. With respect to environmental chemicals, other risk factors may affect disease development over the years, such as other chemicals or lifestyle. Therefore, it can be difficult to demonstrate a clear association between chemical exposure and disease in epidemiological studies.

Other types of studies, including in vitro studies (lab experiments), can support the establishment of an association between chemical exposure and health effects in humans.

The researchers will use Bayesian methods that allow for the integration of data from different sources and the calculation of the probability of an association between exposure to environmental chemicals and a health outcome.

Learn more about disease burden on the DTU National Food Institute's thematic site on Epidemiological microbiological risk modelling.

Sofie Theresa Thomsen received the Reinholdt W. Jorck and Wife's Foundation Research Prize and travel grant in 2023. Read the news: Jorck's Foundation Research Prizes for DTU Researchers.

Find information about the The Research Group for Risk Benefit at DTU National Food Institute's website.

Title of the research project: BurdenX – Development of a Bayesian approach to estimate the unknown health impact of environmental chemicals.

The project runs from April 2024 for three years. It is funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark under the Inge Lehmann programme with DKK 3,161,066. Researcher Sofie Theresa Thomsen at DTU National Food Institute leads the project.

BurdenX is conducted in collaboration with Professor Thomas Hartung from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, and Professor Mark Cronin from Liverpool John Moores University, England.