August 2, 2010 by David Taylor

The protection of biodiversity clearly has to involve multiple actions from a variety of actors, many of which relate to the continued maintenance of appropriate habitats. In addition, there is also a need to protect ecosystems from any toxic insults arising from human activities. This is conventionally done by establishing emission controls for substances entering the environment whilst establishing parallel quality standards that are not to be exceeded. wca has been extensively involved in this type of activity for several years.

However, by necessity, these controls tend to be retrospective, being established only after a potential environmental impact has been identified. Environmental impacts can be acute in nature and the incidence of the effect, although not necessarily its cause, are then usually relatively obvious. The devastation of the Gyps vulture population in India from an unusual exposure to Diclofenac is a classic example. However, chronic impacts may be equally devastating but are usually much more difficult to discern. For example the impact of tributyl tin antifoulants on dog whelks and of natural & synthetic oestrogens on male fish, were only identified because single research groups happened to be interested in, and were thus monitoring, affected populations.

This raises the question: what needs to be done in order to minimise the risks to biodiversity from such potential impacts? The obvious solution would be to identify these potential impacts as early as possible, but this is not a simple task.

Comprehensive chemical monitoring of the environment is impractical in view of the very large number of potential determinands coupled with the size and complexity of the environment. It is also unnecessary since precautionary computer modelling techniques can predict likely worst case environmental distribution patterns. In addition, what we need to identify is any biological impact, NOT the level of exposure.

Pharmacovigilance has a long history in the patient health sector aimed at tackling a similar issue. This encourages the reporting of adverse impacts (i.e. unexpected side effects) of pharmaceuticals to a central point. This enables connections to be more readily identified and investigated. Although, for many reasons, not an exact parallel, some form of ecovigilance reporting might be valuable in the early identification of unexpected impacts.

The establishment of global or even regional ecosystem surveillance monitoring programmes aimed simply at identifying acute impacts would be a daunting task in itself; however for chronic impacts, at the species level, such a task becomes impossible.

However, more value is potentially extractable from the large amounts of data that are being collected already for other purposes. Biological monitoring studies of species, species assemblages and ecosystems are being undertaken all the time by a range of researchers in many parts of the world. These may identify adverse or unexpected effects of unknown cause and such observations may (or may not) subsequently be included in reports or scientific publications. However, even if the observations are reported they are, in effect, randomly distributed throughout the literature and there is currently no process, other than serendipity whereby connections might be made and restorative action initiated. For example it took several years before it was recognised that amphibian populations in many parts of the world were in decline or that honey bee populations were under pressure.

Such an ecovigilance system need not be either onerous or expensive, but could nevertheless be extremely valuable in identifying chronic impacts caused by low level contamination of the environment by biologically active substances. It would require a central reporting locus to be established whose role would be to maintain a simple on-line database of reported adverse effects. This body would not necessarily undertake any research itself, but would be widely advertised as an archive of potential impacts and a source for researchers to use. In this way identification of similar biological impacts of unknown cause could be facilitated by adding value to information that was already being generated.

Ultimately a data collection system covering the global environment would be a desirable outcome; however the European Union is now sufficiently large for an EU system to be viable on its own, at least initially. A good starting point might be to begin with the large amount of biological monitoring data that will be generated as part of the implementation of the Water Framework Directive.