A primary objective of threatened and endangered species conservation is to ensure that chemical contaminants and other stressors do not adversely affect listed species. Assessments of the ecological risks of chemical exposures to listed species often rely on the use of surrogate species, safety factors, and species sensitivity distributions (SSDs) of chemical toxicity; however, the protectiveness of these approaches can be uncertain. We comprehensively evaluated the protectiveness of SSD first and fifth percentile hazard concentrations (HC1, HC5) relative to the application of safety factors using 68 SSDs generated from 1,482 acute (lethal concentration of 50%, or LC50) toxicity records for 291 species, including 24 endangered species (20 fish, four mussels). The SSD HC5s and HC1s were lower than 97 and 99.5% of all endangered species mean acute LC50s, respectively. The HC5s were significantly less than the concentrations derived from applying safety factors of 5 and 10 to rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) toxicity data, and the HC1s were generally lower than the concentrations derived from a safety factor of 100 applied to rainbow trout toxicity values. Comparison of relative sensitivity (SSD percentiles) of broad taxonomic groups showed that crustaceans were generally the most sensitive taxa and taxa sensitivity was related to chemical mechanism of action. Comparison of relative sensitivity of narrow fish taxonomic groups showed that standard test fish species were generally less sensitive than salmonids and listed fish. We recommend the use of SSDs as a distribution-based risk assessment approach that is generally protective of listed species.
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