SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  September 2010
Volume 11 Issue 9

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Highlights of the Risk Assessment Sessions at the 2010 SETAC Europe Annual Meeting

Joke van Wensem, Soil Protection Technical Committee (TCB), The Netherlands

The ultimate goal of much of the environmental research done by SETAC’s members is to support risk assessment and risk management of threats to the environment. “All ecotoxicological and chemical research is related to risk assessment,” to quote a keynote speaker from last year’s annual meeting in Göteborg. Therefore, everything that was presented at the meeting could fall under the scope of risk assessment (RA). Fortunately, most of the sessions were summarized by others (see contributions on environmental chemistry, ecotoxicology, life cycle assessment and sustainability, and environmental technologies).

The 14 sessions, 90 platform presentations and 210 posters that directly addressed the theme of RA dealt with a variety of topics focusing on:

Joke van Wensem
  • Specific groups of chemicals (plant protection products and biocides, persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) substances, metals, endocrine disruptors)
  • Fate and exposure (chemicals in consumer routes)
  • The role of modeling (mechanistic effects modeling)
  • Environmental compartments (soil quality assessment)
  • Holistic approaches (ecosystems functions, services and biodiversity)
  • Specific regulations (regulatory needs and scientific responses, river basin management plans, Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (aka REACH))
  • Environmental management (environmental management tools, monitoring data and post registration studies, risk communication)


Looking at chemicals addressed in the sessions, more research is being done on chemical mixtures in a matrix. The leaching and fate of—and the exposure to—chemicals from (micro)plastics, textiles, consumer products, fly ashes, sediments and sludge were presented. Much of this research is driven by new or revised European regulations, e.g. the Waste Framework Directive, or by the wish to reuse waste materials (e.g., sewage sludge) in a sustainable way.

Besides the many chemical issues, new “threats” such as climate change, invasive species and the effects of soil sealing (by pavement, houses and infrastructure) were presented.

To facilitate the continuous search for suitable data for RA from the literature, new methods were presented to evaluate the reliability and relevance of ecotoxicological data, after having established that current methods produce highly variable results. Relevance of lab tests to field situations is indeed an issue. In some presentations there was a preference for test organisms that are very easily grown in the lab and from which we know the whole DNA, but are not relevant for the field. There were worries about the possibility to patent tests (are we going to pay for test methods?). One poster shattered all illusions by concluding that “biological data are typically not normally distributed.”

A session was dedicated to the “vulnerability” concept, which can be applied to populations, communities and even whole ecosystems. Vulnerability is a function of susceptibility to exposure, sensitivity to the stressor, and recovery potential. As such, it is a strong concept for bringing more ecology into RA.

Another new development is the use of the ecosystem services concept to identify specific protection goals for the risk assessment of pesticides. Ecosystem services are the benefits that mankind receives from ecosystems, such as food, pollination and aesthetic values.

Another hot topic is the use of population models in RA, especially in RA for pesticides. The models should be able to extrapolate from individual to populations, between different exposure scenarios, and to include recovery. For the latter, time, space and patchiness are crucial issues. Though risk assessors rely on fate and exposure modeling, the use of population models is not yet common practice. One of the speakers said on behalf of regulators that they need to increase their trust in populations models by training and guidance and being able to “play” with the models. It is remarkable that in order to make population models relevant and accurate, much data are needed, such that the use of models does not initially lead to reduction of data needs.

Presentations on risk mitigation, post-registration studies, monitoring studies and risk communication showed that the focus is also shifting to what happens after the risk assessment is completed and after it has been decided to use a chemical or material containing certain chemicals. This also draws the attention to the need of communication between risk assessors and risk managers.

Looking at the trends, it can be concluded that there is more attention on ecology in risk assessment, integrative approaches are up coming and risk management is being acknowledged as an important step in protecting and enhancing environmental quality through science.

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