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Planetary boundaries: a suitable concept for chemical pollution?

Conference contribution
Authors Thomas Backhaus
Mikael Gustavsson
Anna Alvarsson
Published in Oral presentation at the SETAC World conference, Berlin, Germany
Publication year 2012
Published at Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Language en
Subject categories Biological Sciences


The concept of planetary boundaries has been introduced by Rockström et al. in a publication in Nature in 2009. They are defined as ‘scientifically informed values of the control variable established by societies at a ‘safe’ distance from dangerous thresholds’. That is, planetary boundaries indicate critical thresholds that must not be exceeded, in order to avoid catastrophic environmental impacts. Rockström and his colleagues suggested specific planetary boundaries for climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric 20 SETAC 6th World Congress/SETAC Europe 22nd Annual Meeting ozone depletion, land and freshwater use, biodiversity loss and interferences with phosphorus and nitrogen cycling. They also suggest setting a planetary boundary for chemical pollution, which has not yet been quantified. This presentation will therefore explore whether it is indeed possible and sensible to apply the concept of planetary boundaries to toxic chemicals in the environment.Limitations of and challenges for the planetary boundary concept are not only related to emission, fate and exposure assessment (which were discussed in the previous talks). To a large extent they are also connected to the ecotoxicology of chemicals and include (a) the need to account for the ecological effects of complex multi-component mixtures, (b) the ignorance of local conditions and local effects, and (c) the enormous differences in the ecotoxicological profiles of the myriads of chemicals used in society, which, together with the ever-changing chemical use patterns, make any boundary a constantly moving target.We will explore those issues and their consequences for the concept of planetary boundaries for chemical pollution. To this aim we will use two groups of environmentally important chemical groups as cases in point: (1) a particular group of pesticides, so-called photosystem-II inhibiting herbicides, (2) unspecifically acting industrial chemicals (so-called baseline toxicants).

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