Completed Task Force

Freshwater Ecotoxicity as an environmental impact category to guide the selection of chemical-based products

November 2016

Publication of Task Force findings as Technical Report no.127: Freshwater ecotoxicity as an impact category in life cycle assessment

In a Nutshell:

Freshwater is a vital component in the global ecosystem. Freshwater is a unique environmental habitat and also essential for human life. Freshwater pollution not only poses a risk to the environment, but it can also impact human health as well. Therefore, it is important to maintain anthropogenic pollution below a threshold that would characterise a risk.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a methodology that strives for the assessment of environmental burdens along an entire (product) value chain. This means, for example, a consumer product assessment starts at the extraction of raw materials and it ends with the disposal of the product. All environmentally relevant intermediate stages such as transport, manufacturing steps and product use are accounted for, considering even secondary resources such as energy consumptions and their associated values chains in full.

One general idea behind LCA is to make ´hotspots´ visible. These are impacts along the life cycle which stand out from the rest. Beyond ‘hotspots’, life cycle assessment in principle also enables the comparison of products regarding their environmental performance. This use of LCA is integral to the ‘Product Environmental Footprint’ (PEF) project in the European Union, but it poses greater demands on methodological reliability and data quality. In a series of pilot projects, the methods prescribed in this PEF project were tested for various product types. ‘Freshwater Ecotoxicity’ is an environmental impact category which is part of such assessment. Several fundamental and practical questions were raised regarding the PEF methodology used to determine and compare the life cycle impact assessment of a product for the ‘Freshwater Ecotoxicity’ impact.

Thus, ECETOC established a task force to investigate the method employed in the LCA context of PEF. The aim of the task force was to: i) conduct a scientific investigation of the ‘USEtox’ method for assessment of aquatic ecotoxicity in LCA, based on a simple case study with a virtual down-the-drain product; ii) compare LCA and environmental risk assessment methodology, which both characterise human intervention on the environment and provide a basis for decision-making; and (iii) to provide guidance on the interpretation and scientific relevance of USEtox results in the context of chemical impact assessment and selection of chemical-based (manufactured) products.  The report includes an extended discussion of the options that could move forward the discussion of the relevance and practical aspects of assessment of ecotoxicological effects in the framework of LCA.

The document has been published as ECETOC Technical Report no.127: Freshwater Ecotoxicity as an impact category in life cycle assessment. The Executive Summary and free PDF of the report are available at



There is increasing interest from regulators to apply life cycle based impact assessment methodologies to assess the environmental performance of chemicals and products and to include freshwater ecotoxicity as an impact category. Examples include initiatives on green chemistry in the US as well as the Grenelle Regulation in France and, especially, the EU’s Single Market for Green Products Initiative that covers both fast moving consumer goods as well as durable goods (e.g. the Product Environmental Footprint, PEF, pilot projects that include batteries, detergents, paints, food and drink and IT equipment). A key focus area of such initiatives is the assessment of the environmental impact of chemicals and specifically the application of the USEtox method for measuring freshwater ecotoxicological impacts. The extension of the traditional LCA methodology to include the ecotoxicological impacts of chemicals raises some fundamental issues both methodologically and conceptually with the accepted norm of using risk assessment to manage chemicals within industry and by regulators. At the same time, the scientific committees of the EU have outlined that current prospective environmental risk assessment methodology is far from being realistic, i.e. delivering an accurate approximation of the environmental impact of chemicals. However, there has been no detailed assessment of whether decisions based on a CDV or USETox comparative ranking lead to real and meaningful differences in environmental impact.

With this in mind, the task force is to: 1) conduct a scientific evaluation of the USEtox method and its relevance to the real world; 2) provide guidance on the scientific relevance and interpretation of USEtox results in the context of chemical impact assessment and selection of chemical-based products.