The threshold problem in ecotoxicology
- Cite this article as:
- Cairns, J. Ecotoxicology (1992) 1: 3. doi:10.1007/BF00702652
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The most commonly used threshold in environmental toxicology is the LC50 (or modifications thereof) where 50% of the organisms die or are otherwise affected at a certain concentration of a chemical for a particular time of exposure under specified environmental conditions. Most commonly, this particular threshold is derived from single species laboratory tests low in environmental realism. If the field of ecotoxicology truly examines the effects of chemicals on ecosystems (i.e., complex multivariate systems), serious consideration must be given to thresholds other than those now commonly used in the field of environmental toxicology. Attributes at the community and ecosystem level of organization are not demonstrated at lower levels of biological organization, for example, energy flow and nutrient spiralling. Key issues are whether extrapolation is possible from one threshold to another within a level of biological organization and from one level of biological organization to another for thresholds that do not exist at many levels. Thresholds may be artefacts of testing procedures and may not exist in natural systems. Nevertheless, society must make management decisions about risk with available methods, including those designed to identify some point or threshold below which no deleterious effects are observed. However, these methods and their assumptions deserve more explicit and systematic examination than they have received thus far.