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Environmental risks are not uniformly distributed across groups of people. Age, poverty, and minority status place some groups at a disproportionately high risk for environmental disease. Such groups are exposed to hazardous chemicals or conditions at levels well above those for the general populations.1,2 These exposures may be high-end exposures (> 95th or 99th percentile) to common agents or exposures the general population does not encounter. In traditional risk assessment and management, outliers are excluded or log-transformed; however, special attention should be paid to them.


Gochfeld M, Burger J. Disproportionate exposures in environmental justice and other populations: the importance of outliers. Am J Public Health. 2011 Dec;101 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S53-63. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300121. Epub 2011 May 6. PMID: 21551384; PMCID: PMC3222496.


We examined traditional environmental justice populations and other groups whose exposure to contaminants is often disproportionately high. Risk assessment methods may not identify these populations, particularly if they are spatially dispersed. We suggest using a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey approach to oversample minority communities and develop methods for assessing exposure at different distances from pollution sources; publishing arithmetic and geometric means and full distributions for minority populations; and paying particular attention to high-end exposures. Means may sufficiently characterize populations as a whole but are inadequate in identifying vulnerable groups and subgroups. The number of individuals above the 95th percentile of any distribution may be small and unrepresentative, but these outliers are the ones who need to be protected.


Joanna Burger is with the Division of Life Sciences, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ, and the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute and Consortium for Risk Evaluation With Stakeholder Participation, Piscataway. Michael Gochfeld is with Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Piscataway.

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