Protection of the environment: how to position radioprotection in an ecological risk assessment perspective.
The Science of Total environment - PII: S0048-9697(02)00545-4
The development of a system capable of ensuring adequate protection of the environment from the harmful effects of ionising radiation is at present particularly debated. This need comes both from a restrictive consideration of the environment in the so far existing system for human radioprotection, and the planetary-wide growing concerns about man's technogenic influence on his environment which have yielded `sustainability' and `precaution' as guiding principles for environmental protection. Whilst evolving from the field of human radioprotection, the radioprotection of the environment needs to be discussed in a wider perspective, with particular emphasis on the most advanced concepts which emerge from the efforts to deriving improved approaches to Ecological Risk Assessment. For the sake of protection, the environment is traditionally addressed through its biota since these are the sensitive components of ecosystems. Similarities between man and biotas reflect the ubiquitous mechanistic effects of radiation on life which disrupt molecules. However, important differences also arise in a number of perspectives, from the large spectrum of different species of biotas to their hierarchical self-organisation as interacting populations within ecosystems. Altogether, these aspects are prone to promote complex arrays of different responses to stress which lie beyond the scope of human radioprotection due to its focus on individuals of a single species. By means of selected illustrations, this paper reviews and discusses the current challenges faced in proper identification of measurable effect endpoints (stochastic/deterministic, individual/population- or ecosystem-relevant), dose limits in chronic exposure (or levels of concern), and their consideration according to radiation type (RBE) and interactions with other contaminants (synergies/antagonisms) which represent critical gaps in knowledge. The system of human radioprotection has conceptually been targeted at limiting cancer induction (stochastic) in human individuals, whereas the current approach in radioprotection of biota targets reproductive success (deterministic) and cytogenetic effects, thought to have the highest significance at population and ecosystem levels. The focus on individuals in a bottom-up approach, due to the ease with which it may be quantified, has prompted the development of current ecotoxicological methods as a scientific foundation for environmental protection regulation. However, the most recent ecological theories, which emphasise on complex systems as a key to modern ecological understanding, call for the additional consideration of more holistic, top-down, approaches. Critically, dose–effect relationships of the subsystem components may lose their predictive ability at the system level.