Species sensitivity distributions revisited: A critical appraisal

Valery E. Forbes, Peter Calow

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

218 Scopus citations


We revisit the assumptions associated with the derivation and application of species sensitivity distributions (SSDs). Our questions are (1) Do SSDs clarify or obscure the setting of ecological effects thresholds for risk assessment? and (2) Do SSDs reduce or introduce uncertainty into risk assessment? Our conclusions are that if we could determine a community sensitivity distribution, this would provide a better estimate of an ecologically relevant effects threshold and therefore be an improvement for risk assessment. However, the distributions generated are typically based on haphazard collections of species and endpoints and by adjusting these to reflect more realistic trophic structures we show that effects thresholds can be shifted but in a direction and to an extent that is not predictable. Despite claims that the SSD approach uses all available data to assess effects, we demonstrate that in certain frequently used applications only a small fraction of the species going into the SSD determine the effects threshold. If the SSD approach is to lead to better risk assessments, improvements are needed in how the theory is put into practice. This requires careful definition of the risk assessment targets and of the species and endpoints selected for use in generating SSDs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)473-492
Number of pages20
JournalHuman and Ecological Risk Assessment
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2002


  • Application factors
  • Extrapolation
  • Probabilistic methods
  • Risk assessment
  • Uncertainty


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