Optimal choice of pH for toxicity and bioaccumulation studies of ionizing organic chemicals

Cecilie Rendal, Kresten Ole Kusk, Stefan Trapp

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    It is recognized that the pH of exposure solutions can influence the toxicity and bioaccumulation of ionizing compounds. The present study investigates whether it can be considered a general rule that an ionizable compound is more toxic and more bioaccumulative when in the neutral state. Three processes were identified to explain the behavior of ionizing compounds with changing pH: the change in lipophilicity when a neutral compound becomes ionized, electrical attraction, and the ion trap. The literature was screened for bioaccumulation and toxicity tests of ionizing organic compounds performed at multiple pH levels. Toxicity and bioconcentration factors (BCFs) were higher for acids at lower pH values, whereas the opposite was true for bases. The effect of pH was most pronounced when pH-pKa was in the range of -1 to 3 for acids, and -3 to 1 for bases. The factor by which toxicity and BCF changed with pH was correlated with the lipophilicity of the compound (logKOW of the neutral compound). For both acids and bases, the correlation was positive, but it was significant only for acids. Because experimental data in the literature were limited, results were supplemented with model simulations using a dynamic flux model based on the Fick-Nernst-Planck diffusion equation known as the cell model. The cell model predicts that bases with delocalized charges may in some cases show declining bioaccumulation with increasing pH. Little information is available for amphoteric and zwitterionic compounds; however, based on simulations with the cell model, it is expected that the highest toxicity and bioaccumulation of these compounds will be found where the compounds are most neutral, at the isoelectric point. © 2011 SETAC.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalEnvironmental Toxicology and Chemistry
    Issue number11
    Pages (from-to)2395-2406
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


    • Bioconcentration factors
    • Dissociation
    • Toxicity
    • Cell model
    • Ionizing compounds


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