Impacts of metals on human health: a comparison between nine different methodologies for Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA)

Pizzol M, Christensen P, Schmidt J H, Thomsen M (2011)

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Journal of Cleaner Production 19:646-656


This paper looks into the differences and uncertainties in determining the impact of “metals’” emissions on human health, in Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA). Metals are diverse substances, with different properties and characteristics, considered important in LCIA because of their toxicity to humans and ecosystems. First, we defined a list of the most significant metals in terms of impacts on human health. This was done according to precise criteria accounting for both physical and toxic properties of the metals. Second, we performed an LCIA on different key processes using various existing LCIA methodologies and including also USEtox: the recently developed consensus-model for LCIA. Last, we compared the results in relative terms using a contribution analysis. The analysis showed poor or no agreement between the methods: the relative contribution of each metal and of the metals in total to the total impact on human health changes greatly according to the LCIA method used. These differences are due mainly to the number of metals included in each method and to the technique used to calculate the characterization factors. Results obtained with USEtox show no apparent correlation with results calculated with other methods. At present time USEtox is recommended as the best model for LCIA on human toxicity, but mainly because of the large consensus behind it, because its uncertainties regarding metals are still high. The study gives a good and simple overview regarding the way different methods address the impact assessment for metals, and helps in the interpretation of LCIA results for actual LCA studies where metal emissions are involved.

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