When the human health risk assessment/risk management paradigm was developed, it did not explicitly include a “problem formulation” phase. The concept of problem formulation was first introduced in the context of ecological risk assessment (ERA) for the pragmatic reason to constrain and focus ERAs on the key questions. However, this need also exists for human health risk assessment, particularly for cumulative risk assessment (CRA), because of its complexity. CRA encompasses the combined threats to health from exposure via all relevant routes to multiple stressors, including biological, chemical, physical and psychosocial stressors. As part of the HESI Risk Assessment in the 21st Century (RISK21) Project, a framework for CRA was developed in which problem formulation plays a critical role. The focus of this effort is primarily on a chemical CRA (i.e., two or more chemicals) with subsequent consideration of non-chemical stressors, defined as “modulating factors” (ModFs). Problem formulation is a systematic approach that identifies all factors critical to a specific risk assessment and considers the purpose of the assessment, scope and depth of the necessary analysis, analytical approach, available resources and outcomes, and overall risk management goal. There are numerous considerations that are specific to multiple stressors, and proper problem formulation can help to focus a CRA to the key factors in order to optimize resources. As part of the problem formulation, conceptual models for exposures and responses can be developed that address these factors, such as temporal relationships between stressors and consideration of the appropriate ModFs.
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