Technological and analytical advances are helping to take environmental exposures the route of genetic profiles in predicting a person’s disease risk with greater precision

Anxious about BPA? Petrified of pesticides? Plenty of scientific literature shows that concerns about certain chemicals’ potential to up the risk for chronic disease are justified. And although genetics can predispose a person to many ills, more than half of disease risks and possibly as much as 90 percent likely stem from environmental factors, according to recent epidemiological research.

Hard data of the quality now gleaned from genetic studies however, has been lacking in the environmental field. And if there is to be any hope of untangling the complex web of risks behind chronic diseases, many scientists argue, researchers need to develop an “exposome” a highly detailed map of environmental exposures that might occur throughout a lifetime, which can be mapped onto the etiology (the study of causes) of major illnesses, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

Environmental factors have long been relegated to questionnaires in epidemiological research, often requiring subjects to estimate a lifetime of exposure in a single question. Even for studies that have focused on environmental correlations, researchers “just ask people what their exposures are,” Steve Rappaport, a professor of environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, says. “How can you imagine you’re going to get any resolution like that?”