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Assessing historical exposure is like solving a mystery
  1. H Kromhout
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr H Kromhout
 Environmental and Occupational Health Division, Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences, Utrecht University, PO Box 80176, 3508 TD Utrecht, Netherlands;

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Commentary on the paper by Johansen et al (see page434)

Historical exposure assessment for epidemiological studies has always been a great challenge for occupational hygienists and exposure assessors. In the paper by Johansen and colleagues1 published in this issue of the journal, the authors describe what they call “history science methods” for exposure assessment for occupational health studies. The paper reads likes a detective story, with this exception that not only the culprits (exposed) have to be identified but also the innocents (non-exposed). Their approach is unconventional, given that they start from very unlikely sources for exposure assessment such as census data, telephone books, and biographies. The census was even the sampling frame, because identifying a cohort of small shop owners and employees through regular means (approaching companies, employer’s organisations, pension funds) was impossible. Instead the authors started with the computerised 1970 Danish census data. Of course these files contained a personal identification number (so typical for the Scandinavian countries and almost non-existent in most other countries) with which data linkage became an option. Unfortunately (or luckily) the researchers had to go beyond the electronic files, because the available job codes in the files were not detailed enough to separate dry cleaners from laundry workers and dyers. The personal identification number enabled linkage to the Danish Cancer Register and so case-control studies nested within a …

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  • Competing interests: none declared

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