Metal toxicity characterization factors for marine ecosystems: considering the importance of the estuary for freshwater emissions

Yan Dong*, Ralph K. Rosenbaum, Michael Zwicky Hauschild

*Corresponding author for this work

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    The study develops site-dependent characterization factors (CFs) for marine ecotoxicity of metals emitted to freshwater, taking their passage of the estuary into account. To serve life cycle assessment (LCA) studies where emission location is often unknown, site-generic marine CFs were developed for metal emissions to freshwater and coastal seawater, respectively. The new CFs were applied to calculate endpoint impact scores for the same amount of metal emission to each compartment, to compare the relative ecotoxicity damages in freshwater and marine ecosystems in LCA.

    Site-dependent marine CFs for emission to freshwater were calculated for 64 comparatively independent seas (large marine ecosystems, LMEs). The site-dependent CF was calculated as the product of fate factor (FF), bioavailability factor (BF), and effect factor (EF). USEtox modified with site-dependent parameters was extended with an estuary removal process to calculate FF. BF and EF were taken from Dong et al. Environ Sci Technol 50:269–278 (2016). Site-generic marine CFs were derived from site-dependent marine CFs. Different averaging principles were tested, and the approach representing estuary discharge rate was identified as the best one. Endpoint marine and freshwater metals CFs were developed to calculate endpoint ecotoxicity impact scores.

    Marine ecotoxicity CFs are 1.5 orders of magnitude lower for emission to freshwater than for emission to seawater for Cr, Cu, and Pb, due to notable removal fractions both in freshwater and estuary. For the other metals, the difference is less than half an order of magnitude, mainly due to removal in freshwater. The site-dependent CFs generally vary within two orders of magnitude around the site-generic CF. Compared to USES-LCA 2.0 CFs (egalitarian perspective), the new site-generic marine CFs for emission to seawater are 1–4 orders of magnitude lower except for Pb. The new site-generic marine CFs for emission to freshwater lie within two orders of magnitude difference from USES-LCA 2.0 CFs. The comparative contribution share analysis shows a poor agreement of metal toxicity ranking between both methods.

    Accounting for estuary removal particularly influences marine ecotoxicity CFs for emission to freshwater of metals that have a strong tendency to complex-bind to particles. It indicates the importance of including estuary in the characterization modelling when dealing with those metals. The resulting endpoint ecotoxicity impact scores are 1–3 orders of magnitude lower in seawater than in freshwater for most metals except Pb, illustrating the higher sensitivity of freshwater ecosystems to metal emissions, largely due to the higher species density there.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
    Issue number8
    Pages (from-to)1641-1653
    Number of pages13
    Publication statusPublished - 2018


    • Comparative toxicity potential (CTP)
    • Estuary
    • Fate model
    • Marine Ecotoxicity
    • USEtox


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