Including Ecosystems in Risk Assessments

By Lawrence Martin

People hiking in woods

Forest ecosystems provide recreational opportunities and a wealth of other services.

Science provides the foundation for the decisions that EPA makes to protect public health and the environment, and ecological risk assessments play a large part. Recently the Agency released guidelines and a technical paper to help risk assessors and others better incorporate an understanding of the many benefits people receive from ecosystems, referred to as “ecosystem services,” when conducting ecological assessments.

An ecological risk assessment begins with the identification of those critters that are most likely to be affected by a particular risk, such as populations of benthic invertebrates, and various bird, fish, and other animal or plant species. This sort of information is key for ecologists to understand the effects of pollution or environmental management strategies, and serve like barometers to assess and predict risks.

This is where the role of ecosystem services can play an important part in understanding the significance of an ecological risk assessment.  Ecosystem services are the benefits that people get from nature, and include a wealth of things such as timber resources from forests, outdoor recreation, pollination, coastal protection from storm surges, clean drinking water, and even the absorption of atmospheric carbon by forests and other natural areas. Ecosystem services describe the ways ecosystems benefit our society.

By examining and reporting on risks posed to such services, ecological risk assessments can clearly make the link between the health of those bugs in the river mud and safe recreation or the health of a fishery and a community’s well-being.

Bringing ecosystem services into EPA’s risk assessment process will help stakeholders and decision makers understand the full value of ecosystems.

For example, when EPA talks about the Superfund decision to dredge the lower eight miles of the Passaic River in New Jersey to clean-up the pesticides, heavy metals, and other contaminants – at an estimated cost of $1.38 billion—it’s not just to bring down the chemical levels in the water and increase the healthy population of native fish species. It’s also to reclaim the public use value of the river for safe recreation, downstream safety of fisheries, and even the real estate value of river front property. These and many other ecosystem services will be enhanced as a result of the clean-up investment.

By including the assessment of ecosystem services in risk assessments, the cost-effectiveness of decisions is better understood to include the full value of the environment to society.  The guidelines and technical background paper are available at Ecosystem Services Ecological Risk Assessment Endpoints Guidelines.

About the Author: Lawrence Martin is a biologist in EPA’s Office of Science Advisor, and was the science coordinator for the Risk Assessment Forum panel that authored two publications describing the use of ecosystem services in ecological risk assessment.  He lives with his family in the Chesapeake bioregion and relishes the diversity of outdoor recreation – from hiking in the Appalachians and kayaking on the Potomac River, to scuba-diving offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.