, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 43-51
Date: 17 Oct 2008

Pesticide ecotoxicological effect factors and their uncertainties for freshwater ecosystems

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Background, aim, and scope

Characterization factors for ecotoxicity in the Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) are used to convert emissions into ecotoxicological impacts. Deriving them involves a fate and an effect analysis step. The fate factor quantifies the change in environmental concentration per unit of emission, while the effect factor quantifies the change in impact on the ecosystem per unit of environmental concentration. This paper calculates freshwater ecotoxicological effect factors for 397 pesticides belonging to 11 pesticide-specific toxic modes of action (TMoA), such as acetylcholinesterase inhibition and photosynthesis inhibition. Moreover, uncertainties in the effect factors due to uncertain background concentrations and due to limited toxicity data are quantified.


To calculate median ecotoxicological effect factors (EEFs), toxic pressure assessments were made, based on the species sensitivity distribution—and the multisubstance potentially affected fraction—concept. The EEF quantifies an estimate of the fraction of species that is probably affected due to a marginal change in concentration of a pesticide. EEFs were divided into a TMoA-specific and a chemical-specific part, which were calculated on the basis of physicochemical properties, emissions, and toxicity data. Propagation of parameter uncertainty in the EEFs and the TMoA- and chemical-specific parts was quantified by Monte Carlo simulation and results were reported as 90% confidence intervals.


Median EEFs range from 2·10−3 to 7·106 l/g. Uncertainty in the TMoA-specific part is dominated by uncertainty in the TMoA-specific spread in species sensitivity and by uncertainty in the effective toxicity of a TMoA. Uncertainty in the chemical-specific part of the EEFs depends on the number of species for which toxicity data are available to calculate average toxicity (n s) and ranges from a median uncertainty of 2.6 orders of magnitude for n s = 2 to one order of magnitude for n s ≥ 4. The TMoA-specific effect factor for systemic fungicides shows the largest uncertainty range. For seven TMoAs, uncertainty ranges of the TMoA-specific effect factor are less than two orders of magnitude. For the other four TMoAs, the EEF uncertainty range is between two and eight orders of magnitude. For the chemical-specific part of the EEFs, we found that variation in uncertainty readily decreases for pesticides for which toxicity data are available for at least three species.


The same parameters that contributed most to uncertainty were found for pesticides as were found before for high-production-volume chemicals. However, uncertainty in concentrations of pesticides was lower. TMoA-specific factors obtained with the applied nonlinear method differ up to nine orders of magnitude from the factor of 0.5, which is used in the linear method. With the applied method, a distinction in EEFs can be made among different TMoAs.


Ecotoxicological effect factors are presented, including overviews of their uncertainty ranges and the main contributors to uncertainty. The applied nonlinear method provides the possibility to quantify parameter uncertainty in the TMoA-specific part of the ecotoxicological effect factor, which is helpful to get more insight in how uncertainty in ecotoxicological characterization factors can be reduced.

Recommendations and perspectives

The calculated uncertainty ranges can be included in life cycle assessment (LCA) case studies, which allows for better interpretation of LCA results obtained with the EEFs. To put the uncertainty in effect factors into perspective within LCIA, more information on the uncertainty in fate factors should be derived.

Responsible editor: Michael Z. Hauschild