A meta-analysis was conducted to inform the epistemology, or theory of knowledge, of contaminants of emerging concern (CECs). The CEC terminology acknowledges the existence of harmful environmental agents whose identities, occurrences, hazards, and effects are not sufficiently understood. Here, data on publishing activity were analyzed for 12 CECs, revealing a common pattern of emergence, suitable for identifying past years of peak concern and forecasting future ones: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT; 1972, 2008), trichloroacetic acid (TCAA; 1972, 2009), nitrosodimethylamine (1984), methyl tert-butyl ether (2001), trichloroethylene (2005), perchlorate (2006), 1,4-dioxane (2009), prions (2009), triclocarban (2010), triclosan (2012), nanomaterials (by 2016), and microplastics (2022 ± 4). CECs were found to emerge from obscurity to the height of concern in 14.1 ± 3.6 years, and subside to a new baseline level of concern in 14.5 ± 4.5 years. CECs can emerge more than once (e.g., TCAA, DDT) and the multifactorial process of emergence may be driven by inception of novel scientific methods (e.g., ion chromatography, mass spectrometry and nanometrology), scientific paradigm shifts (discovery of infectious proteins), and the development, marketing and mass consumption of novel products (antimicrobial personal care products, microplastics and nanomaterials). Publishing activity and U.S. regulatory actions were correlated for several CECs investigated.