Ecological risk assessment has developed over approximately the last 25 years as a scientific practice for assessing risks of toxic chemicals in the environment. Important issues addressed by ecological risk assessment approaches include chemical contamination at industrial facilities or hazardous waste sites; the potential for chemical contamination of fish and wildlife from production and release of new chemicals; possible effects of toxic chemicals on endangered species; and biomagnification of chemicals in food chains. Ecological risk assessment has become an important tool for government agencies throughout the world in evaluating and regulating toxic chemicals.

Ecological risk assessment often deals with the potential effects of toxic chemicals in the environment by extrapolating toxicity data from laboratory experiments on test species to organisms, populations, and higher-level ecological systems in nature. Traditionally, ecotoxicology has used laboratory toxicity testing with single species to develop response thresholds indicative of no-effects or effects doses (or concentrations). Current methods for ecological risk assessment still focus on the endpoints of survival, growth, and reproduction of individual organisms because those endpoints are easily evaluated in laboratory tests. However, this focus has been questioned by ecotoxicologists who recognize the need to address higher levels of biological organization, such as populations, food webs, and ecosystems.

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