Criteria to protect aquatic life are intended to protect diverse ecosystems, but in practice are usually developed from compilations of single-species toxicity tests using standard test organisms that were tested in laboratory environments. Species sensitivity distributions (SSDs) developed from these compilations are extrapolated to set aquatic ecosystem criteria. The protectiveness of the approach was critically reviewed with a chronic SSD for cadmium comprising 27 species within 21 genera. Within the data set, one genus had lower cadmium effects concentrations than the SSD fifth percentile-based criterion, so in theory this genus, the amphipod Hyalella, could be lost or at least allowed some level of harm by this criteria approach. However, population matrix modeling projected only slightly increased extinction risks for a temperate Hyalella population under scenarios similar to the SSD fifth percentile criterion. The criterion value was further compared to cadmium effects concentrations in ecosystem experiments and field studies. Generally, few adverse effects were inferred from ecosystem experiments at concentrations less than the SSD fifth percentile criterion. Exceptions were behavioral impairments in simplified food web studies. No adverse effects were apparent in field studies under conditions that seldom exceeded the criterion. At concentrations greater than the SSD fifth percentile, the magnitudes of adverse effects in the field studies were roughly proportional to the laboratory-based fraction of species with adverse effects in the SSD. Overall, the modeling and field validation comparisons of the chronic criterion values generally supported the relevance and protectiveness of the SSD fifth percentile approach with cadmium.