Last updated: April 4, 2019

What Does Ecogenetics Mean?

Ecogenetics is a branch of genetics and environmental science that studies how genetics affects responses to substances found within a given environment. It includes both population-level studies that look at how the general human genome is affected by or otherwise interacts with a given substance, as well as studies that investigate how variation within the human genome affects individual human responses to a given substance.

Ecogenetic methodologies provide occupational health researchers with another way to understand the manner in which exposure to a hazardous substance affects worker health. This allows for better risk assessments and a more accurate understanding of what threshold limits are necessary to protect worker health.

Safeopedia Explains Ecogenetics

Ecogenetics provides insight into the risk level that substances pose to individuals by advancing our understanding of how genetics exacerbates or inhibits the negative effects of that substance. A chief interest of ecogeneticists involves genetic polymorphism, which refers to the genetic variation that exists between humans, and the impact it has on how humans interact with chemical substances.

A better understanding of the effects of genetic variation could conceivably protect genetically susceptible individuals from being harmed by exposure to an amount of substance that can be well-tolerated by the majority of the population. For instance, a 2015 Harvard study successfully discovered a genetic link between occupational noise exposure and hearing loss that could be used to provide specific guidelines for protecting susceptible individuals.

The use of genetic screening in a workplace context is a complex matter that coincides with issues related to worker privacy and genetic discrimination, and as such, genetic screening programs are difficult to implement. Genetic testing has been implemented by some companies in the past, but it is not currently a regular part of most OHS programs.

The use of genetic screening to inform workplace health and safety is not required by occupational health and safety authorities, and there are currently no validated genetic tests for assessing increased workplace risk to a given chemical. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) anticipates that the use of genetic tests will become more prevalent in the future as ecogenetic science advances and as relevant testing becomes easier and more affordable.


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