Life Cycle Impact Assessment

The LCIA phase of an LCA is the evaluation of potential human health and environmental impacts of the environmental resources and releases identified during the inventory. Impact assessment should address ecological and human health effects; it can also address resource depletion. An LCIA attempts to establish a linkage between the product or process and its potential environmental impacts.

An important distinction exists between LCIA and other types of impact analyses. The LCIA does not necessarily attempt to quantify any actual, specific impacts associated with a product, process, or activity. Instead, it seeks to establish a linkage between a system and potential impacts. The models used within impact assessment are often derived and simplified versions of more sophisticated models within each of the various impact categories. These simplified models are suitable for relative comparisons of the potential to cause human or environmental damage, but are not indicators of absolute risk or actual damage to human health or the environment. For example, risk assessments are often very narrowly focused on a single chemical at a very specific location. In the case of a traditional risk assessment, it is possible to conduct very detailed modeling of the predicted impacts ofthe chemical on the population exposed and even to predict the probability of the population being impacted by the emission. In the case of LCA, hundreds of chemical emissions (and resource stressors) which are occurring at various locations are evaluated for their potential impacts in multiple impact categories. The sheer number of stressors being evaluated, the variety oflocations, and the diversity of impact categories make it impossible to conduct the assessment at the same level of rigor as a traditional risk assessment. Instead, models are based on the accepted models within each of the impact categories using assumptions and default values as necessary. The resulting impact models are suitable for relative comparisons, though insufficient, for absolute predictions of risk.

The key concept in this component is that of stressors. A stressor is a set of conditions that may lead to an impact. For example, if a product or process is emitting greenhouse gases, the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may contribute to global warming. Processes that result in the discharge of excess nutrients into bodies of water may lead to eutrophication. An LCIA provides a systematic procedure for classifying and characterizing these types of environmental effects.

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