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Heterogeneity: A Major Factor Influencing Microbial Exposure and Risk Assessment


  • Armand Maul

    Corresponding author
    1. Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire des Environnements Continentaux, Université de Lorraine, Metz, France
    • Address correspondence to Armand Maul, Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire des Environnements Continentaux, Université de Lorraine, UMR 7360, Metz, F-57045, France; tel: (33) 3 87 31 51 67;

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Microbial risk assessment is dependent on several biological and environmental factors that affect both the exposure characteristics to the biological agents and the mechanisms of pathogenicity involved in the pathogen-host relationship. Many exposure assessment studies still focus on the location parameters of the probability distribution representing the concentration of the pathogens and/or toxin. However, the mean or median by themselves are insufficient to evaluate the adverse effects that are associated with a given level of exposure. Therefore, the effects on the risk of disease of a number of factors, including the shape parameters characterizing the distribution patterns of the pathogen in their environment, were investigated. The statistical models, which were developed to provide a better understanding of the factors influencing the risk, highlight the role of heterogeneity and its consequences on the commonly used risk assessment paradigm. Indeed, the heterogeneity characterizing the spatial and temporal distribution of the pathogen and/or the toxin contained in the water or food consumed is shown to be a major factor that may influence the magnitude of the risk dramatically. In general, the risk diminishes with higher levels of heterogeneity. This scheme is totally inverted in the presence of a threshold in the dose-response relationship, since heterogeneity will then have a tremendous impact, namely, by magnifying the risk when the mean concentration of pathogens is below the threshold. Moreover, the approach of this article may be useful for risk ranking analysis, regarding different exposure conditions, and may also lead to improved water and food quality guidelines.