SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  21 June 2012
Volume 13 Issue 6

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SETAC Co-Sponsors Workshop on Multi-Scale Integration of Human Health and Environmental Data

Annie Jarabek, Glenn Suter and Bruce Vigon

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

SETAC was one of several professional societies that co-sponsored a recent Contemporary Concepts in Toxicology (CCT) workshop sponsored by the Society of Toxicology (SOT) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). The workshop was held at the USEPA campus in Research Triangle Park, NC on 8-11 May 2012. The International Society of Exposure Science (ISES), Society of Risk Analysis (SRA) and the International Environmental Modeling and Software Society (iEMSs) also co-sponsored the workshop along with several other governmental agencies, including the US Food and Drug Administration, US Army Corps of Engineers, US Geological Survey, US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Energy – Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Private sector supporters included the American Chemical Society, ENVIRON, TERA, OpenMI, Open Geospatial Consortium and ICF.

CCT workshops are intended as in-depth meetings of significant duration to explore cutting-edge topics. The objective of this meeting was to provide a unique opportunity to convene scientists &endash; from different sectors (government, industry, NGO and academia) and across the exposure-dose-response-analysis continuum for both ecological and health endpoints – to discuss the timely topics of data integration, data management, and model interface needs with software developers, software engineers, database architects and administrators, and data analysts.

SETAC convened a Pellston conference in 1994 on the conceptual design of an ecological risk assessment decision support system (ERADSS) and provided the book publication from that workshop to this group. This CCT workshop expanded the scope to include human health and had the special aspect of including software and database experts. In support of developing more than a scientific wish list, the computational experts were able to speak to the technology and design issues that transcend the scientific disciplines to ensure that the specifics of a computational infrastructure would support all endeavors, especially data integration. Information technology and the internet have become much more expansive and capable since the earlier workshop, yet many of the recommendations were still remarkably relevant.

The workshop consisted of plenary presentations plus five thematic breakout sessions:

  • Theme A: Exposure, Transport and Transformation
  • Theme B: Ecological Risk, Ecosystem Services and Climate Change
  • Theme C: Dose-Response, Tox21 and Risk
  • Theme D: Life Cycle/Multi-Criteria Assessment and Cost: Benefit Analysis
  • Theme E: Information Technology

Participants in each session are developing state-of-the-science manuscripts that describe their perspectives on best practices and summary of information technology needs to advance that discipline. A separate synthesis manuscript will articulate a set of recommendations for standards on interoperability and computational systems to support data integration across the disciplines.

Plenary Presentations

The first day of the workshop was devoted to plenary talks from each of the sectors and from different disciplines within each to introduce the range of issues and perspectives. Virtually all the talks emphasized the need to make data and models from diverse sources more available and more useful through interoperability. Both real-time exposure monitoring and new assays in molecular toxicology are creating huge data sets that must be integrated across exposure durations and different receptors. One speaker noted that we are in the era of a highly technical, "knowing generation" that expect data to be easily discovered electronically, asserting that if data cannot be located via Google then they essentially do not exist. One participant felt that databases and computational tools must be maintained "live", reflecting curation and annotation as data or models are used in various applications. Speakers also noted the need to extrapolate across steps in the development process (bench to bedside) and across scale, including the levels of organization within an organism to various locations (gene to globe). The ability to visualize and display data was considered a tool of great utility to convey content and aid inferences. Semantics was identified as a critical issue regarding interoperability for exchanging information across the disciplines. As examples, a vein is not the same in a leaf, fly or mammal; and "species" in different modeling arenas may represent a reaction molecule or a rat.

An example of interoperability in an arena most familiar to SETAC readers was provided by Daniel Ames of Idaho State University. He described the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science’s (CUAHSI) open Hydrologic Information System (HIS) including Hydroserver, HydroDesktop and HIS Central, Together, they provide a complete platform for storing and organizing hydrologic and water quality data and then extracting, organizing, plotting, mapping, and linking to models. HIS achieves consistency, interoperability and transparency through standards and open licensing. The speakers from NGOs emphasized the need for openness both for their own projects and for the public. The information technology speakers described efforts to standardize data and model management in ways that enhance interoperability. The Open Modeling Interface Standard (Open MI) and Open Geospatial Consortium were presented as efforts that have achieved integrated dynamic environmental modeling via use of international standards for spatial data and interfaces. Resource description format (rdf) is a family of World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) specifications that were originally designed as a metadata data model that can be used as a general method for conceptual description or modeling of information that is implemented in web resources, using a variety of syntax formats.

Thematic Breakout Sessions

Experts in each of the five theme areas served as invited participants and joined other workshop attendees to grapple with articulating best practices and recommendations to facilitate data integration both within and across the disciplines. "Ambassadors" from other disciplines joined the discussions to foster cross-fertilization and stimulate development of interfaces and data integration.

Consistent messages across the disciplines were heard with respect to the need for data discovery and modular "plug and play" capabilities to facilitate comparisons. The need for maintenance and curation to ensure quality assurance of databases was also a prominent recommendation. Besides the above mentioned cross-cutting recommendations, each of the theme areas identified specific aspects pertinent to their areas that would be developed in the manuscripts and possibly additional publications that could be written in addition to the ones mentioned above. As examples:

  • The Exposure, Transport and Transformation group’s manuscript will expound on some of the challenges and opportunities of dealing with exposure, particularly the contextual nature of the exposure. Because exposures are driven by diverse sources of data that involve very different data structures, the information technology experts will be challenged to develop a system that can fully encompass exposure information.
  • The Dose-Response, Tox21 and Risk group spent time on trying to understand what toxicity and risk assessment knowledge could be gained from emerging data sets on genomic and proteomic responses to stressors. If this category of information is to be used to expand or even replace traditionally generated dose-response data sets, such relationships are critical to sort out. The ability to generate such data faster and less expensively will be limited in its usefulness if the implications for policy and regulatory applications are not sorted out.
  • The Life-Cycle/Multi-Criteria Assessment and Cost: Benefit Analysis group focused on the description of a general purpose decision support system within which a variety of decisions could be accommodated. Such a support system would provide a common basis for problem formulation, model development and stakeholder engagement. Users could select among decision analysis tools for their particular needs. Specific modeling approaches or platforms, such as life-cycle assessment or risk assessment, then could be connected to the support system depending on the nature of the problem and the questions posed.

In summary, the workshop provided a forum, perhaps even a unique forum, for environmental and human health scientists to share ideas, analyze data and modeling needs, and communicate with experts in the information sciences what a vision for a fully interconnected and interoperable world of risk and sustainability assessment could (or even should) look like in the coming decades.

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