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Keywords:

  • Ecological risk assessment;
  • Problem formulation;
  • Uncertainty

Abstract

The Ecological Processes and Effects Committee of the US Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board conducted a self-initiated study and convened a public workshop to characterize the state of the ecological risk assessment (ERA), with a view toward advancing the science and application of the process. That survey and analysis of ERA in decision making shows that such assessments have been most effective when clear management goals were included in the problem formulation; translated into information needs; and developed in collaboration with decision makers, assessors, scientists, and stakeholders. This process is best facilitated when risk managers, risk assessors, and stakeholders are engaged in an ongoing dialogue about problem formulation. Identification and acknowledgment of uncertainties that have the potential to profoundly affect the results and outcome of risk assessments also improves assessment effectiveness. Thus we suggest 1) thorough peer review of ERAs be conducted at the problem formulation stage and 2) the predictive power of risk-based decision making be expanded to reduce uncertainties through analytical and methodological approaches like life cycle analysis. Risk assessment and monitoring programs need better integration to reduce uncertainty and to evaluate risk management decision outcomes. Postdecision audit programs should be initiated to evaluate the environmental outcomes of risk-based decisions. In addition, a process should be developed to demonstrate how monitoring data can be used to reduce uncertainties. Ecological risk assessments should include the effects of chemical and nonchemical stressors at multiple levels of biological organization and spatial scale, and the extent and resolution of the pertinent scales and levels of organization should be explicitly considered during problem formulation. An approach to interpreting lines of evidence and weight of evidence is critically needed for complex assessments, and it would be useful to develop case studies and/or standards of practice for interpreting lines of evidence. In addition, tools for cumulative risk assessment should be developed because contaminants are often released into stressed environments.