Review of “Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology” by Michael C. Newman

The following review will be published in one of the coming issues of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (Remember that you can print the post as a PDF or send it around as an email by clicking on the corresponding button at the end of the post):

 

Book Review „Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology“, 4th edition

by Michael Newman

The book “Fundamentals of Ecotoxicology” is a modern classic of the ecotoxicological literature, published in 2015 in its 4th edition (the first one was published in 1999). The book as a whole is undoubtedly the brainchild of Michael Newman, although it is peppered with quotations and longer contributions from a range of renowned experts, each providing his/her own specific expertise. This provides the book with a personal perspective and a very distinct flavor, which sets it positively apart from the legion of multi-author volumes on the market that often lack personal engagement and internal coherency. Simply put, the volume is a textbook in the best sense of the word: entertaining, educating and thought-provoking.

The book is largely written from a US perspective – which is not surprising, given that the author is working at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Every now and then I felt that the book would have benefited from taking a step back in order to explore issues and concepts that are not that commonly applied in the US. For example, a discussion of the precautionary principle and its implications for the practice of ecotoxicology and the accrual of scientific knowledge would have been interesting, given its major importance in other parts of the world.

The book often goes beyond its promise to provide just the fundamentals of ecotoxicology. I found chapter 1 especially valuable, which provides a historical perspective, a brief treatise of the underlying philosophy of science and an overview of recent developments. This is also partly because of J. Cairns’ contribution to this section, which provides my new favorite definition of what ecotoxicology actually entails: “…an attempt to provide some rules for the planetary game that human society is playing”. The concluding remarks in chapter 14 neatly round off the book by linking back to the introductory chapter.

Every now and then the volume also goes beyond being a textbook for academic education and approaches the realm of a reference book. This certainly makes it valuable beyond its use as an introductory text. However, the book therefore tries to be complete, which, given the available space, is not always successful. For example, I have mixed feelings regarding the attempt to introduce “the major classes of contaminants” in chapter 2. Not only because it is largely a judgement call to decide what actually constitutes a “major” contaminant, but especially because, given that contaminants comprise tens of thousands of chemicals, such a compilation has to remain painfully incomplete if squeezed into one chapter in a single volume textbook. For example, herbicides, by far the biggest pesticide group, are summarized in just a couple of lines.

Chapters 6 to 12 are at the heart of the book and systematically explore the science of ecotoxicology, from molecular effects to landscape and global impacts. This hierarchical treatment of ecotoxicology is often a characteristic of Michael’s texts and it works extremely well to introduce of general principles and mechanisms, and then to explain how they link together. All fundamental principles are explained by a careful selection of illustrative case studies. However, the reader should be aware that the book has a strong bias towards using examples from experiments with animals, studies from the realm of plant or microbial ecotoxicology are comparatively rare.

These six central chapters cover an enormous breadth of topics, and also provide the mathematical / statistical underpinnings or shortcomings of standard approaches, always keeping the principles in focus, i.e. without getting lost in too many numerical details. The interested reader might be referred to Michael’s book on “quantitative ecotoxicology” for an advanced in-depth treatment of the numerical aspects of ecotoxicology.

Chemical risk assessment, the activity to which the majority of ecotoxicological work ultimately aims to contribute, is discussed in a separate chapter near the end of the book. The US perspective of the author becomes obvious here, which is why the appendices, written by international experts on the subject, are of tremendous help for the reader to develop a global perspective.

Already the earlier editions of the book have served me well in my courses on fundamental and advanced ecotoxicology. This new edition is certainly going to continue with that tradition. It comes highly recommended as the textbook on the fundamentals of ecotoxicology. The main text does not only provide naked facts, but is a well woven fabric of facts, personal insights, experiences and critiques by the main author – lined with insightful contributions from additional experts, suggested readings, various appendices, study questions and an extensive glossary. This structure makes the book as a whole refreshingly unique and engaging. Beyond its excellence in the subject matter, the book therefore also provides a prime example of how a modern academic textbook should look.

680 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 978-1466582293. $68.95. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Thomas Backhaus

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Empowering academic research in chemical risk assessment and management

The following text will appear as an editorial in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management in the April 2015 issue. As usual a button for a printer-friendly format is found at the bottom of the text.

Scientists in the fields of toxicology and ecotoxicology are expected to explain how chemicals act on organisms and ecosystems and to make predictions that help guide regulatory actions and policy-making. The role of academic science in this context is challenged time and again, often with the argument that its contributions are not sufficiently in line with regulatory approaches for chemical risk assessment and management. Here we argue that nonconformity in academic research should be welcomed because academia’s crucial role is that of examination and forecasting of science, policy, and social issues potentially looming on the horizon.

Academic scientists are motivated to explore unknown phenomena, new chemicals, and novel endpoints. They often engage in exploratory toxicological or ecotoxicological research that delivers a posteriori hypotheses about cause-effect relationships, modes and mechanisms of action, and susceptible biocenoses, species, organs, tissues or cells. This type of research searches for patterns, devises novel theoretical models, and develops new experimental techniques. It is useful for determining whether a condition or problem warrants further investigation and, if so, provides the information for appropriate research designs and data collection methods. Such work often embraces John Tukey’s (1962) philosophy that it is “far better to have an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise”. Exploratory research informs regulatory chemical risk assessment and management, but rarely are the results sufficient for final regulatory decision-making.

Confirmatory research, on the other hand, is inherently narrower in scope and starts with a well-defined a priori hypothesis. It confirms or refutes a pre-specified causal relationship or mechanism of toxic action, underpins the relevance of a phenomenon, and maximizes Society’s confidence in the work presented. Confirmatory research is often intended to provide the regulatory community with the data needed to derive robust quantitative conclusions on the toxicological or ecotoxicological consequences of chemical exposure.

A great deal of value of academic science lies in exploratory research and the ability to build critical, long-term perspectives on current practices and the consequences of human activity. Researchers in academia should therefore strive to be more than service providers for regulatory risk assessment. Rather, academics should contemplate how regulatory goals, for example the substitution of hazardous chemicals with less harmful alternatives, could be implemented, or how new methods and tools could strengthen regulatory practice. Academic research in toxicology and ecotoxicology should prepare the foundation for the next generation of regulatory guidelines, which are urgently needed in an increasingly interconnected world with limited natural resources and planetary boundaries that are becoming more and more obvious.

Consequently, education in academic research institutions should provide the platforms for training the next generation of critically thinking scientists that have the intelectual capacity to ask fundamental and challenging questions about chemical interactions with the environment and human health. Education should, of course, teach students both current and new or emerging analytical tools and techniques; but education should also emphasize the limitations of current knowledge and how different laboratory and field-based studies support or distract from scientifically sound chemical risk assessment and management.

Academic research, happily ignoring prescriptive regulatory practices, guidelines, and the (eco)toxicological ‘flavor of the month’, is absolutely vital for the continuous development of new ecotoxicological and toxicological knowledge needed to solve tomorrow’s problems. The tendency to pressure academia – via grants and continuous external and internal evaluations – to justify the immediate societal value of every activity therefore warrants more critical assessment.

Academic research is increasingly built on external funding, and public institutions providing the funding rarely agree to sponsor confirmatory studies. Herein lies a challenge facing the present day chemical management as a whole: the role of the impartial, confirmatory analyst in toxicology and ecotoxicology is largely vacant. Confirmatory research in business is largely focused on chemicals and human activities immediately relevant to a particular business, and therefore not always sufficiently systematic and publicly disseminated, as well as sometimes embued with conflict of interest. Regulatory authorities often lack the financial, laboratory capacity, and technical resources necessary to build upon or confirm the results of exploratory research. Consequently, the lack of systematically planned, well implemented, documented, and disseminated confirmatory research constitutes a critical gap in our ability to assess and manage chemical risks.

Regulatory guidelines serve specific purposes, but scientific discovery and the exploration of unknown phenomena are not amongst them. This, however, does not imply that results generated from non-standard, exploratory approaches should be readily dismissed. The two volumes of “Late Lessons from Early Warnings”, published by the European Environment Agency in 2001 and 2013 [1,2] should remind us that high quality academic research can properly motivate early regulatory actions. Regrettably, assessment approaches and decision criteria addressing when and how regulatory agencies should respond to academic research (exploratory or otherwise) remain largely lacking.

The body of toxicological and ecotoxicological knowledge must be safeguarded from incomplete knowledge and spurious results. In the long run, this obligation can only be met by supporting a collaborative combination of exploratory and confirmatory research that is published and discussed in the open scientific literature.

Academic institutions have enjoyed centuries of postulating and opining on all facets of science, often leaving the task of discerning the practicality, relevance, and usefulness of academic research to business, governments, and other institutions. This needs to change, particularly with the aim to improve chemical risk assessment and management. The academic community needs to find its voice and engage more actively in promoting the value of academic research for the long-term development of toxicology and ecotoxicology and its benefits to Society.

1. European Environmental Agency, Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896-2000. Environmental Issue Report 22, 2001. Available at the Agency’s website for direct download (PDF)
2. European Environmental Agency, Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation, Report 2013/1, 2013. Available at the Agency’s website for direct download (PDF)

Prof. Thomas Backhaus
Senior Editor, Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management
University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Dr. Xenia Trier
Technical University of Denmark, Denmark