environmental policy analysis, peer reviewed: fallacies in ecological risk assessment practices

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    Fallacies in Ecological Risk Assessment Practices M . P O W E R Department of Agricultural Economics University of Manitoba Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3T2N2

    L . S. M c C A R T Y L. S. McCarty ycientific Research and Consulting Oakville, Ontario, Canada L6K2J2

    Anthropogenic stresses have forced society to use science to understand the impact of these stresses on ecosystems. One of the more popular tools in this effort is ecological risk assessment. The develop-ment of risk assessment has been driven by the need to allocate scarce resources to reduce human-related risks. Although risk assessment is widely used, consensus on an acceptable, comprehensive decision-making framework that clearly estab-lishes the roles of policy and science in formulat-ing environmental management principles has not emerged (2).

    Inevitably, risk assessment involves both policy and science. The process of identifying ecological endpoints demands societal involvement in select-ing valued ecosystem components [2, 3). How-ever, selection of appropriate indicators for mea-suring and detecting potential changes in ecosystem components is a science-based issue (4). Lying at the interface of science and policy, risk assess-ment has been subjected to the demands of both. Moreover, attempts to use it as a bridge between science and science-based policy have resulted in a variety of myths and misconceptions, which. 3X6 now part of commonly accepted practice. Signifi-cant among these misconceptions, because of the consequences of their use in managing and/or reducing impacts on the environment are the notions that

    a "most sensitive," or "sentinel," species can be chosen and reliably used for environmental protec-tion;

    chronic toxicity data are "better" than acute data for regulatory purposes; and

    controlled experimental data can be accu-rately extrapolated to predict the nature and mag-nitude of population-, community-, and ecosystem-level responses to known stresses.

    Related misconceptionsecosystems are uni-formly sensitive to different forms of stress; data ob-tained from time-limited tests can be used to accu-rately characterize the long run; reductions in ecosystem complexity imply increasing system in-stability and impending catastrophe; and "good sci-ence" will remedy any and all environmental prob-lemscontribute, individually or in combination, to significant errors in gathering, analyzing, and inter-preting data used to characterize environmental changes {5-7). Analytical and interpretative errors may lead to mistakes in attributing ecological sig-nificance to observed changes and, consequently, mistakes in environmental policy and manage-ment (8) If the aim of risk assessment is to protect conserve and sustain ecological resources it is im-nnrtant to understand the influence of possible mis-conceptions about its practice

    Since the advent of ecological risk assessment, there has been insufficient time to develop a consensus that guides its use in science-based policy activities. As a part of risk assessment, science and policy have been combined to cre-ate several myths that hold important conse-quences for environmental decision making. These mythsa "sensitive," or "sentinel," spe-cies can be selected and appropriately used; chronic data are better suited to regulatory needs than are acute data; and controlled ex-perimental data can be accurately extrapolated to the fieldcontinue because of failures to clearly distinguish between the roles and uses of science and policy. Though possibly useful from a policy perspective, these myths are not scientfically valid. Issues of representativeness, lack of ecological knowledge, and variability question their scientific foundation. Science has played an important part in developing assess-ment techniques, but it cannot address all the issues surrounding environmental risk manage-ment. Policy must be used to make manage-ment-related decisions. Therefore, the most im-portant role for science is the provision of information to be used in environmental decision making.

    3 7 0 A VOL. 31, NO. 8, 1997 / ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY / NEWS 0013-936X/97/0931-370A$14.00/0 1997 American Chemical Society

  • The illusion of a sentinel species One of the abiding hopes for risk assessment has been to develop an environmental equivalent to the lit-mus test. That data obtained from laboratory-based toxicity tests, or spatially and temporally lim-ited field work, may be used to predict die deleterious effects of exposure for all species inhabiting an ecosystem is appealing: Discover the most sensi-tive species and adjust media quality guidelines to ensure its survival, and it follows (or so the argu-ment goes) that all other ecosystem inhabitants will be sufficiently protected. If such a species could be found, the task of regulation would be greatly sim-plified, and attendant monitoring and enforcement costs reduced.

    In pursuing this line of reasoning, risk assessors are chasing an elusive Holy Grail. Sensitivity is a rel-ative, not an absolute, concept. It is a function of the species, contaminant, and modifying factors oper-ating at the time of the assessment (9). Unfortu-nately, most available toxicity data rarely quantify po-tency consistently or exhaustively over the range of values that modifying factors are likely to exhibit in natural environments (5). Moreover, estimates of modifying factor interactions are scarce, as evi-denced by the extensive use of uncertainty factors in risk assessment to address unknowns {10).

    Determining a most sensitive species relies on se-lecting a species from among a limited array of test organisms suited for laboratory experimentation (6). Although recent emphasis has been placed on se-lecting species appropriate for the ecosystem un-der study {11), die result is nevertheless the same. In lieu of a most sensitive species, a most sensitive species tested is obtained {12). The two are not the same, and the former is particularly variable. The re-sults of repeated toxicity tests, even within the same laboratory and on the same species, vary. Variabil-ity among interlaboratory tests is greater, and re-sults may be separated by a half an order of magni-tude or more (9).

    Variations in the nature and degree of test inter-pretation and of interspecies and intertest compar-isons are even more problematic {13). For example, toxicological variability among orders, classes, and phyla tends to be large (4). Organisms selected for use in toxicity testing often belong to strains reared under laboratory conditions specifically to reduce in-dividual variability and improve the consistency of experimental results (6). Candidates for sentinels are also routinely selected because of tiieir economic im-portance, protected status, or other human-based bias, even before tiieir sensitivity to stressors has been deteremined. These species may be difficult to sam-ple {14) or are precluded ffom testing because of fheir rare or endangered status Although attempts have

    been made to classify species by their use of com-mon resources with guild theory, it is often difficult to correctly assign species to guilds or to select spe-cies representative of a known guild {14). Despite these objections, it is routinely argued that stan-dards developed using sentinels will protect most species that inhabit the ecosystems to which stan-dards are applied.

    Experience shows that ecosystem complexity and uniqueness mitigate against the easy transfer of in-formation from one site to the next {15). Indeed, the complexity associated with underlying biological and physical systems virtually precludes the reductionist approach to developing environmental management protocols implied by the most-sensitive-species notion. Accordingly, guidelines for environmental protection must be determined on a trial-and-error basis, as system-specific knowledge increases {16), rather than on the basis of ecologically inap-propriate analogues represented by results of sen-tinel species testing.

    The sentinel species approach, however, has value in a retrospective sense. In current environmental as-sessment and monitoring practice, this value re-mains largely unexploited. Sentinel responses are de-scriptive of events that have occurred, not necessarily predictive of things that might happen. In conjunc-

    FIGURE 1

    Conflicting interpretations of ecological impact Chronic exposure to sublethal amounts oftoxaphene had different effects on the abundance of different brook trout population age classes. Statistically significant changes in age-0 abundance contrasted with statistically insig-nificant changes in adult abundance. The upper and lower dashed lines define the points beyond which positive (in adult abundance) and negative (in age-0 abundance) changes, respectively, were statistically significant at the 0.05 level of significance. Figure based on data from Reference 23.


  • tion with comprehensive monitoring data, an ap-propriate stressor classification scheme, and multi-variate statistical analysis, it should be possible to overcome many of the methodological objections to the concept and to determine why certain species have diagnostic properties for a given set of ecolog-ical and stressor conditions.

    Limitations of chronic data Reductions in the frequency of concentrated point source contaminant releases have led to an increas-ing emphasis on the significance of sublethal indi-cators as useful early warnings of exposure conse-quences. As a result, chronic data are now seen as more realistic than acute data because they are more reflective of the magnitude and duration of the stresses to which most organisms are exposed. They are a