Interpretation of Data: Important Considerations

Research studies, separate from CDC’s National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Report), are required to determine whether blood or urine levels are safe or are associated with disease or adverse effects.

The measurement of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine does not mean, by itself, that the chemical causes disease. Advances in analytical methods allow us to measure low levels of environmental chemicals in people, but separate studies of varying exposure levels and health effects are needed to determine whether blood or urine levels result in disease. These studies must also consider other factors such as duration of exposure. The Report does not present new data on health risks from different exposures.

For some environmental chemicals, such as lead, studies have given us a good understanding of the health risks associated with different blood levels. However, for many environmental chemicals, we need more research to assess health risks from different blood or urine levels. The results shown in the Report should help prioritize and foster research on human health risks that result from exposure to environmental chemicals. For more information about exposure to environmental chemicals including Internet reference sites, see the “Chemical and Toxicological Information” link at

Persistent and non-persistent chemicals; Use of percentiles; Comparison of levels between groups

In the Report, most measurements in urine quantify chemical metabolites of non-persistent chemicals (those that do not stay in the body a long time). Metals and some tobacco biomarkers (e.g., heterocyclic amines) measured in urine are exceptions for they are not metabolites. Persistent chemicals (those that stay in the body for a long time) are usually measured in serum as the parent chemical.

The higher percentiles (75th, 90th, 95th) provided for each chemical convey useful information about the upper distribution and range of levels in the population. The 95th percentile is helpful when determining whether levels observed in separate public health investigations or other studies are unusual.

Levels of chemicals are provided for the demographic groups as stratified by age, gender, and race/ethnicity. Demographic groups may not be equal in their composition with respect to other variables. Chemicals measured in pooled serum samples are stratified by combined demographic groups (e.g., non-Hispanic black females, ages 12-19 years). CDC scientists publish separate scientific papers that make detailed comparisons of levels of chemicals in different demographic groups. See for a list of peer-reviewed biomonitoring papers.

Not all the chemicals in the Report are measured in the same individuals. Therefore, it is not possible to determine the fraction of all measured chemicals that were found at detectable levels in each person.

Blood, serum, and urine levels of a chemical should not be confused with levels of the chemical in air, water, food, soil, or dust.

Concentrations of environmental chemicals in blood or urine are not the same as those in air, water, food, soil, or dust. For example, a chemical concentration of 10 µg/L in water does not produce a level of 10 µg/L in blood or urine. Blood or urine levels may reflect exposure from one or more sources, including air, water, food, soil, and dust.

Levels of a chemical in blood, serum, and urine are determined by how much of the chemical has entered the body through all routes of exposure, including ingestion, inhalation, and dermal absorption, and how the chemical is distributed in body tissues, transformed into metabolites, and eliminated from the body. Although the levels in the blood, serum and urine are measures of the amount of a chemical that has entered the body by all routes of exposure, the blood or urine level alone does not indicate the specific exposure source or route of exposure.

Page last reviewed: March 24, 2022