SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  16 February 2012
Volume 13 Issue 2

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21st Century Environmental Risk Assessment

John Toll, Chair, Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group Work Group on Solution-Focused Environmental Risk Assessments and Mark Johnson, Co-chair, Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group

The conceptual framework for environmental risk assessment (ERA) hasn’t changed much in a long time… at least since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its Guidelines for Ecological Risk Assessment nearly a decade and a half ago (USEPA 1998). The turn of the century brought a flurry of activity with regard to the development of promising new analytical tools, such as species sensitivity distributions, probabilistic risk assessment models, spatially explicit exposure models and population-level risk assessment methods. A decade later, relatively few risk assessments have incorporated the use of these tools or other promising developments.

Is the conceptual framework itself part of the problem? Some ERA practitioners would contend that the framework doesn’t do enough to ensure that ERAs produce practical solutions to risk management problems. They would argue that the conceptual framework encourages practitioners to focus on describing baseline risks, leaving the analysis of problem-solving alternatives as something of an afterthought. Consequently, ERAs fall short of providing risk managers with the information needed to make good, practical decisions.

The Ecological Risk Assessment Advisory Group (ERAAG) is sensitive to the concern that ERA is falling short of its potential, and to the possibility that new guidelines of some sort might be warranted to promote a shift toward more “solution-focused” ERAs. During the SETAC North America 32nd Annual Meeting in Boston, it authorized the formation of a work group to examine these issues. To help the work group get started, the ERAAG is sponsoring the session “21st Century Environmental Risk Assessment” at the SETAC North America 33rd Annual Meeting in Long Beach. ERA practitioners from across the spectrum of SETAC’s membership are invited to submit abstracts for the session and join the work group. Abstract submission opens 1 April. People may join the Solution Focused ERA work group at any time by contacting the chair (

The Long Beach session will explore the need to – as the National Research Council Committee on Improving Risk Analysis Approaches Used by the U.S. EPA puts it – raise expectations for what risk assessments can provide (NRC 2009, p. 251). We are seeking presentations about successful solution-focused ERAs. These presentations should also try to translate specific lessons learned into useful general guidelines for ERA practitioners. The goal of the session is to begin framing new guidelines for ways to consistently achieve solution-focused ERAs. If you have experiences that may be useful for formulating these guidelines, please consider submitting an abstract to “21st Century Environmental Risk Assessment” and joining the Solution Focused ERA work group.

NRC. 2009. Science and decisions: advancing risk assessment. National Research Council, National Academies Press, Washington, DC. USEPA. 1998. Guidelines for ecological risk assessment. EPA/630/R-95/002 F. Risk Assessment Forum, US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC.

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