Environmental Geochemistry and Health

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 189–203 | Cite as

Uncertainty in epidemiology and health risk and impact assessment

  • David J. BriggsEmail author
  • Clive E. Sabel
  • Kayoung Lee
Review Paper


Environmental epidemiology and health risk and impact assessment have long grappled with problems of uncertainty in data and their relationships. These uncertainties have become more challenging because of the complex, systemic nature of many of the risks. A clear framework defining and quantifying uncertainty is needed. Three dimensions characterise uncertainty: its nature, its location and its level. In terms of its nature, uncertainty can be both intrinsic and extrinsic. The former reflects the effects of complexity, sparseness and nonlinearity; the latter arises through inadequacies in available observational data, measurement methods, sampling regimes and models. Uncertainty occurs in three locations: conceptualising the problem, analysis and communicating the results. Most attention has been devoted to characterising and quantifying the analysis—a wide range of statistical methods has been developed to estimate analytical uncertainties and model their propagation through the analysis. In complex systemic risks, larger uncertainties may be associated with conceptualisation of the problem and communication of the analytical results, both of which depend on the perspective and viewpoint of the observer. These imply using more participatory approaches to investigation, and more qualitative measures of uncertainty, not only to define uncertainty more inclusively and completely, but also to help those involved better understand the nature of the uncertainties and their practical implications.


Uncertainty Conceptualising Epidemiology Health risk 



This paper arose out of multidisciplinary discussions held at the MULTITUDE/SEGH workshop, held in June 2007 in Liverpool, UK. Participants with a wide range of expertise were brought together with the author(s) and this interpretation owes a great deal to those resultant discussions. The participants in this particular theme of the workshop included Louise Ander, Katy Boon, Paul Cleary, Elisa Giubilato, James Grellier, Gibby Koshy, Maria Lathouri, Paolo Luria, George Onuoha, Lesley Rushton, Tom Shepherd and Chaosheng Zhang. This research and the workshop was supported by The Joint Environment & Human Health Programme, supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Environment Agency (EA), Ministry of Defence (MOD), Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), Medical Research Council (MRC), Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Health Protection Agency (HPA), and administered via NERC grant NE/E009484/1. The authors also gratefully acknowledge funding from the European Union, through the 6th Framework Programme INTARESE and HEIMTSA studies, for the work underlying the views presented here.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • David J. Briggs
    • 1
    Email author
  • Clive E. Sabel
    • 1
  • Kayoung Lee
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Epidemiology and Public HealthImperial College LondonLondonUK

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