Developing an Exposure Burden Score for Chemical Mixtures Using Item Response Theory, with Applications to PFAS Mixtures

By Shelley H Liu, Jordan R Kuiper, Yitong Chen, Leah Feuerstahler, Jeanne Teresi, and Jessie P Buckley
Environ Health Perspect
November 2, 2022
DOI: 10.1289/EHP10125


There are few existing methods to quantify total exposure burden to chemical mixtures, independent of a health outcome. A summary metric could be advantageous for use in biomonitoring, risk assessment, health risk calculators, and mediation models.


We developed a novel exposure burden score method for chemical mixtures, applied it to estimate exposure burden to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) mixtures, and estimated associations of PFAS burden scores with cardio-metabolic outcomes in the general U.S.




We applied item response theory (IRT) to biomonitoring data from 1,915 children and adults 12-80 years of age in the 2017-2018 National Health and Examination Survey to quantify a latent PFAS burden score, using serum concentrations of eight measured PFAS biomarkers, each considered an "item." The premise of IRT is that through using both information about a participant's concentration of an individual PFAS biomarker, as well as their exposure patterns for the PFAS mixture, we can estimate the participant's latent PFAS exposure burden, independent of a health outcome. We used linear regression to estimate associations of the PFAS burden score with cardio-metabolic outcomes and compared our findings to results using summed PFAS concentrations as the exposure metric.


PFAS burden scores and summed PFAS concentrations had moderate-high correlation (). Isomers of PFOS [-perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (-PFOS) and perfluoromethylheptane sulfonic acid isomers (Sm-PFOS)] were the most informative to the PFAS burden scores. PFAS burden scores and summed PFAS concentrations were both significantly associated with cardio-metabolic outcomes, but associations were generally closer to the null for summed PFAS concentrations vs. the PFAS burden score. Adjusted associations (95% CIs) with total cholesterol (in milligrams per deciliter) were 8.6 (95% CI: 5.2, 11.9) and 2.4 (95% CI: 0.5, 4.2) per interquartile range increase in the PFAS burden score and summed concentrations, respectively. Sensitivity analyses showed similar associations with cardio-metabolic outcomes when only a subset of PFAS biomarkers was used to estimate PFAS burden. In a validation study, associations between PFAS burden scores and cholesterol were consistent with primary analyses but null when using summed PFAS concentrations.


IRT offers a straightforward way to include exposure biomarkers with low detection frequencies and can reduce exposure measurement error. Further, IRT enables comparisons of exposure burden to chemical mixtures across studies even if they did not measure the exact same set of chemicals, which supports harmonization across studies and consortia. We provide an accompanying PFAS burden calculator (, enabling researchers to calculate PFAS burden scores based on U.S. population exposure reference ranges.

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