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Keywords:

  • Chemical footprint;
  • Life cycle assessment;
  • Planetary boundaries;
  • Risk assessment;
  • Integrated assessment;
  • Life cycle indicators

ABSTRACT

The development and use of footprint methodologies for environmental assessment are increasingly important for both the scientific and political communities. Starting from the ecological footprint, developed at the beginning of the 1990s, several other footprints were defined, e.g., carbon and water footprint. These footprints—even though based on a different meaning of “footprint”—integrate life cycle thinking, and focus on some challenging environmental impacts including resource consumption, CO2 emission leading to climate change, and water consumption. However, they usually neglect relevant sources of impacts, as those related to the production and use of chemicals. This article presents and discusses the need and relevance of developing a methodology for assessing the chemical footprint, coupling a life cycle-based approach with methodologies developed in other contexts, such as ERA and sustainability science. Furthermore, different concepts underpin existing footprint and this could be the case also of chemical footprint. At least 2 different approaches and steps to chemical footprint could be envisaged, applicable at the micro- as well as at the meso- and macroscale. The first step (step 1) is related to the account of chemicals use and emissions along the life cycle of a product, sector, or entire economy, to assess potential impacts on ecosystems and human health. The second step (step 2) aims at assessing to which extent actual emission of chemicals harm the ecosystems above their capability to recover (carrying capacity of the system). The latter step might contribute to the wide discussion on planetary boundaries for chemical pollution: the thresholds that should not be surpassed to guarantee a sustainable use of chemicals from an environmental safety perspective. The definition of what the planetary boundaries for chemical pollution are and how the boundaries should be identified is an on-going scientific challenge for ecotoxicology and ecology. In this article, we present a case study at the macroscale for the European Union, in which the chemical footprint according to step 1 is calculated for the year 2005. A proposal for extending this approach toward step 2 is presented and discussed, complemented by a discussion on the challenges and the use of appropriate methodologies for assessing chemical footprints to stimulate further research and discussion on the topic. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2013;9:623–632. © 2013 SETAC