Occupational exposome

The accumulation of exposures during our lifetime is a significant factor in the development of diseases. Think of the environment in which we grow up, live, work, play sports and sleep. This has led to the concept of the exposome: the totality of exposures that people experience throughout their lives and how their bodies respond to them.

Together with partners, we are working on technology and methods to monitor and interpret these exposures, relate them to health effects and develop effective preventative measures.

Download the white paper

Read more about the Exposome concept in the white paper titled ‘Exposome: Connecting the dots for effective prevention of disease’.

The promising potential of the exposome

Many common disorders are closely linked to exposures that range from lifestyle factors to chemical exposures, social interactions and stress. Collectively, these exposures have an enormous impact on health in our society. Because of the complex relationship between exposures and their effects, we are often unable to explain why one person will develop a particular disease, while another will not. The exposome concept helps to bridge this knowledge gap. It provides important insights that form the basis for prevention, such as:

  • Why does one person become ill but not another?
  • How do different exposures combine to cause health effects?
  • What are the first signs of the negative effects of exposure?

TNO Exposoom programme

Exposome and occupational health

Occupational exposure is an important health factor. People spend a lot of time in the workplace. Exposure at work is often greater and more complex than externally or in the domestic environment. And work is closely linked to lifestyle and behaviour (e.g. diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption), as well as socio-economic status.

We apply the exposome concept to occupational exposure in order to develop evidence-based and effective preventive measures that improve health in the workplace. Here are a few examples:

  • We use sensors and sensor-based methodologies to obtain personal exposure profiles throughout the working day. This will give us a better understanding of who is being exposed, where a person is located during higher exposures, and the sources of that exposure.Read more about the Virtual Occupational Hygiene Assisant or watch the video about the Virtual Occupational Hygiene Assistant.
  • Other innovative methods enable us to determine internal or external exposure such as point of care biomonitoring or (personal) passive sampling methods.
  • We combine data mining of existing toxicological knowledge with internal human exposures and exposure-response information. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that lead to disease, where exposures operate through similar mechanisms, and of vulnerable groups. This contributes to more efficient risk assessment where we can better incorporate all sources of information.
  • We coordinate the EU EPHOR project in which a large consortium of EU partners is working to develop and apply methods and techniques to accurately define the ‘working life’ exposome and understand how it relates to health. The resulting methodologies and techniques will be made available to scientists, occupational hygienists, physicians and policy makers via the WeExpose toolbox.

We are happy to work together with stakeholders such as occupational hygienists, employees, employers, sensor developers, IT developers etc. to develop the Virtual Occupational Hygiene Assistant in order to prevent occupational diseases. We are working on the following technologies or applications:

We generally use commercially available sensors. But if these are not available, we develop them ourselves. An example of this is a portable particulate sensor for the workplace that measures mass rather than numbers of particles. Another example is the development, in cooperation with end users, of a crystalline-silica sensor. Watch the video about the Crystalline silicon sensor.

International cooperation in the field of occupational hygiene, together with HSE and NIOSH, allows us to focus on, among other things, the application of sensors on the shop floor. We also answer practical questions, such as which is the most suitable sensor to measure a specific exposure, how do we determine the validity of the data obtained, and what fresh information can we extract from all this new data?

We have compiled info sheets specifically for the workplace which explain how sensors are used and for what purposes. The info sheets describe the pros and cons of these applications, and address the possible ethical issues that may arise when introducing sensors into the workplace.

  • Info sheet 1: Exposure sensors
  • Info sheet 2: Sensors as detectors
  • Info sheet 3: Stationary exposure sensors
  • Info sheet 4: Exposure sensors with indoor location tracking
  • Info sheet 5: Personal exposure sensors
  • Info sheet 6: Personal exposure sensors with technique to measure context

In addition to visualising exposure over the course of the day, or directly linking measured excessive exposure to an alert, we also want to answer more complex exposure questions. Where do the exposures mainly occur, under what conditions, and for which employee? With this in mind, we develop models and data analysis techniques for sensor data that allow us to model exposure in both time and space.

For example, we make ‘heat maps’ that show the concentrations in a room. We are also developing models that identify the causes of changes in exposure throughout the day. And we are investigating whether sensor data is of value in further improving current exposure models that are mainly used to estimate time-weighted average exposures for regulatory purposes. An example of this is the Advanced REACH Tool (ART). These models provide a much more detailed picture of where, when and why increased exposure occurs. This allows for a more targeted prevention of exposure.

Sensors collect data, which is often about people. The introduction of sensors into the workplace may therefore have an impact on ethical values regarding, for example, health and well-being, the right to self-determination, privacy, trust, fairness and responsibility. As a result, we engage with end users at an early developmental stage of these technologies.

Our development of the Virtual Occupational Hygiene Assistant is part of the working life exposome programme, in which we map all exposures experienced during working lifetimes, and extrapolate these into the (early) effects on health.

Data infrastructure: EXCITE

In order to make sensor data informative for the employee or occupational hygienist, we need to convert it into comprehensible information, together with perspectives for action. That is why we developed EXCITE: a data infrastructure for research and prototyping purposes. It allows us to store sensor data in real time, convert it (based on the models above), and feed it back to the user. EXCITE is a modular system that allows us to flexibly link sensor data to other types of information or models. This means continuous expansion of the system. EXCITE is designed to optimise transparency and the reuse of sensor data processing.

Exposome and urban health

During their lifetime, everyone encounters exposures in the urban environment that may affect their health. Think of air pollution, noise and heat. We are therefore developing methods to better identify such urban exposures based on the combination of sensor measurements and high-resolution (dispersion) modelling:

  • In the Eindhoven region, we identify exposure to air pollution on a personal and group level using a large-scale sensor network. We do this in cooperation with industry, local authorities, citizens and knowledge institutions. Read more about measuring air quality for a healthy environment.
  • Within the Precision Medicine for More Oxygen (P4O2) consortium, which is coordinated by AMC, we are developing a methodology for analysing the indoor environment of COPD patients. We do this in cooperation with a company that has developed a COPD self-management app. The results will be included in the self-management app, with the aim of better preventing lung attacks.

Exposome sensor technology

The immune exposome

Between 15 and 20% of the Western population suffers from an inflammatory disease. Inflammatory processes also play an important role in many other diseases. The immune system is driven by the inflammatory balance. This balance depends on a complex interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic factors, such as chemical and microbial exposures. We are investigating what these important extrinsic factors might be, and the mechanisms through which they (jointly) affect the immune system. This is crucial for the development of safe and effective interventions and control of allergic and inflammatory diseases.

Discover our innovations for future-proof work

Read, watch and listen to the stories about our projects in which we describe how we develop innovations for future-proof work with public and private partners.

Download the e-brochure ‘Innovations for future-proof work’ (pdf) (pdf)

Would you like to participate?

Thanks to our multidisciplinary approach and our own experts, ranging from sensor developers to exposure scientists, and from systems biologists to behavioural scientists, we are able to unravel the exposome. Together with partners from industry and the world of research, we work in partnerships that are essential for moving forward in this field and for developing applications.

We have a strategic partnership for exposome research with the NIOSH in the US, HSE in the UK and the Utrecht Exposome Hub. Would you like to learn more about our exposome activities, or participate? Then please contact us.


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