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NICE - Novel instruments for effectbased assessment of chemical pollution in coastal ecosystems

Problem identification

The American Chemical Society currently registers around 70 new chemicals per hour, and 500 of them are expected to reach a wide market every year. Between June and December 2008 roughly 150 000 chemicals were preregistered for market approval within REACH. All of these compounds (and/or their transformation products) potentially end up in the environment – either at some stage of their normal life cycle (e.g. waste disposal), or as a result from accidental spills. The resulting chemical cocktails finally end up in the marine environment. Even limited chemical monitoring indicates the regular presence of chemical mixtures with 20‐200 components along the Swedish coast. We need to accurately monitor the potential ecotoxicological impact of such chemical cocktails, identify the mixture components of primary concern and implement appropriate pro‐active measures such as realistic environmental quality targets. In principle these are tasks central to the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Directive (MSD). However, neither directive addresses chemical mixtures and mixture effects explicitly. This might be a major shortcoming. Empirical evidence shows that compliance with environmental quality targets for individual chemicals does not always safeguard against unwanted toxic mixture effects. Chemical cocktails are also in almost all cases distinctly more toxic than the individual compounds. We thus hypothesize that the joint toxicity of chemical mixtures might be adversely affecting marine ecosystems, e.g. by contribution to the continuous decline of fish health. To be able to evaluate the ecological status in relation to the contamination by mixtures of toxic compounds, we need to assess effects directly in the environment, using methods that can provide causal links to indicate which compounds actually damaged the biota. A recent workshop [6] on effect‐based monitoring identified a severe lack of tools for this purpose. Finally, in view of the ubiquitous presence of chemical cocktails in the environment and their elevated toxicity, approaches for environmental protection need to become more “mixture aware”.

NICE three main aims:

(i) To develop a NICE toolbox for effect‐based monitoring and risk assessment of realistic, complex exposure situations. The tools are based on an integration of the whole landscape of ecotoxicological effects, comprising advanced molecular tools (OMICs), classical biomarkers and population level endpoints and finally advanced ecological effect indicators (PICT).

(ii) To validate and apply the developed tools in a multi‐level field study, comprising fish, invertebrates and microorganisms. We will provide an in‐depth assessment of the links between ecological and chemical status at selected sites at the Swedish westcoast (in Västra Götaland). This will be contrasted with sites in Germany and Poland with known heavy pollution.

(iii) To provide options for amending current regulatory approaches for chemicals in the environment, in order to facilitate the setting of “mixture‐aware” environmental quality targets and monitoring approaches.

Major expected outcomes from NICE:

  • Site‐specific ecotoxicological risk assessments that will provide input for the water management in the county of Västra Götaland.
  • An analysis of whether and to what extent mixture effects warrant special attention in regulatory frameworks, in particular the MSD, WFD and the IED (Industrial Emissions Directive). How protective are current approaches, what are our options for improvement?
  •  An assessment of the power and limitations of current biomarkers, population level endpoints, advanced ecological effect indicators based on PICT and OMICs for effect‐based environmental monitoring, in terms of resource requirements, sensitivity, accuracy and precision.
  • Transcriptomic, proteomic and metagenomic signatures for main classes of marine pollutants for fish, invertebrates and microorganisms. This will provide novel holistic and sensitive biomarkers especially suited for pinpointing causes for impaired ecological status at given field sites.
  • Conclusive links between impacts on molecular levels and adverse outcomes on individuals, population and ecological communities.
  • Identification and quantification of synergistic and antagonistic interactions between environmentally important chemicals.
  • A compilation and critical reflection of the splintered knowledge on chemical pollution along the Swedish Westcoast. This will allow an assessment of current monitoring efforts. Are we monitoring the right compounds and are measured or predicted concentrations of pollutants cocktails likely to explain effects observed in the field?
  • A screening‐level, general assessment of pollution along the Swedish coast, which will provide guidelines under which conditions (in terms of nature and number of mixture components and their concentrations) and at which locations mixtures can be expected to impact the ecological status of an aquatic ecosystem and hence might trigger risk management measures.
  • Capacity building at the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers Institute of Technology for teaching and research in advanced ecotoxicological risk assessment and management techniques. As well as an increased ability to inform regulatory bodies, industry and the general public.


NICE is financed through the Swedish Research Council Formas as a Strong research environments project.


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Page Manager: Thomas Backhaus|Last update: 7/3/2017

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