HHH Prof. Calow on The EU’s Ecological Risk Assessments

The EU's ecological risk assessments
By Peter Calow

In their Policy Forum “Estimating the health benefits of environmental regulations” (4 August, p. 457), A. McGartland et al. compellingly make the case that compatibility between risk assessments of chemicals in the environment and benefit-cost analyses (BCAs) is key to developing effective environmental regulation. This point is not just relevant to human health and the United States. Ensuring that up-to-date risk assessments inform BCAs has also been the subject of study and recommendations for the European Union (1). The EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations (2) require socioeconomic assessments for both human health and ecological decisions.

The challenges for benefits assessment in the ecological context are similar to those outlined by McGartland et al., but there are some additional considerations (1). Protection goals are often too vague in ecological assessments; the legal imperative to protect the environment is inevitably less precise than that to protect health in people. The ecological assessment should be expressed in terms of the delivery of ecosystem services that can be valued (3). The identified services should then inform what end points are measured in the risk analysis. Finally, the common practice in environmental risk assessments to reduce all to a comparison of likely exposures with bright-line threshold concentrations below which adverse impacts are deemed unlikely (so-called risk/hazard quotients) is unhelpful for BCA (4). As with human health, the risk assessment should aim to deliver relationships between exposures and effects on relevant end points that can be related to benefit changes. In the absence of these explicit “dose-response” relationships, which connect with monetized values, judgments replace the transparency of the BCA (4).

The European study's recommendation to make risk assessments more relevant for BCA by increasing collaboration between risk assessors and social scientists (especially economists) is consistent with McGartland et al.'s conclusions (1). These issues will remain important as the United States implements the new Toxic Substances Control Act (5).

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