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Risk Characterisation

What is a contaminated site?

Who does what?

Why is it important?

What is risk management?

Risk assessment fundamentals

Risk assessment methods

Limitations of risk assessment

What are RA tiers?


Problem Identification

Receptor Characterisation

Exposure Assessment

Toxicity Assessment

Risk Characterisation

RM Decisions





Risk Characterisation can be defined as 'the process of estimating the magnitude and probability of effects' (Environment Canada 1994). The objective of Risk Characterisation is to collate and summarise the information obtained during the previous tasks. You are essentially attempting to answer the questions 

'What contaminant? What pathway? What receptor? What exposure? and What effect?'  

It combines the results of the Receptor Characterisation, Toxicity Assessment and Exposure Assessment to determine the probability that a risk may exist, and if so what the magnitude of that risk is. 

The purpose of Risk Characterisation is to provide land managers with sufficiently clear information to allow risk management decisions to be made. If the risks are not adequately defined, it may be necessary to proceed with iterations of whichever aspects are lacking or proceed to the next tier of RA. 

A variety of methods can be used to estimate and characterise the risk. Characterisation of risk can be extremely difficult to achieve, particularly at larger scales of ecological receptors and sites.

'Natural ecosystem variation can make it very difficult to observe (detect) stressor-related perturbations. 

For example, natural fluctuations in marine fish populations are often large, with intra- and interannual variability in population levels covering several orders of magnitude. Furthermore, cyclic events of various periods (e.g. bird migration, tides) are very important in natural systems and may mask or delay stressor-related effects. 

Predicting the effects of anthropogenic stressors against this background of variation can be very difficult.' (USEPA 1998).

Risk Characterisation needs to take into account the limitations of the data collected, and the assumptions and uncertainties inherent in the data and models used. 

Having characterised the risk, and anticipating the necessity of making a risk management decision, it may also be appropriate to consider the performance in terms of speed and effectiveness of remediation options with regard to the recovery of the affected receptor. 

It is important to remember that risk characterisation should also take into account the effects of remedial actions on ecological receptors as the adverse effect of mitigation may negate the benefits of removing the contaminant.

Tier 1  Risk characterisation tasks

A Tier 1 Risk Characterisation involves comparing the on-site contaminant concentrations with the generic guideline values for the various media (e.g. soil, aquatic) and deciding on the likelihood of an adverse effect being generated. 

Essentially several simple questions are asked:

In making this assessment you should also consider the quality, the limitations of the data that have been collected, and the appropriateness and assumptions of the guideline values chosen. These criteria are developed to provide very conservative values with margins of safety incorporated. However, if the biota present in/near the site were not considered in the derivation of the criteria, then further investigation may be required.

You will also need to critically assess how well the problem has been identified or characterised.

This link takes you to an example to demonstrate what is required at this level in the ERA. Follow link for the XYZ Enterprises example at RA Tier 1.
Introductory risk assessment information on the next RA stage: Risk Management Decision 
  Advanced risk assessment information on Risk Characterisation

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Page last updated: 01 May 2007

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