Influence of pH on the toxicity of ionisable pharmaceuticals and personal care products to freshwater invertebrates

Ming Sun, Rahmat Quaigrane Duker, Frits Gillissen, Paul J. Van den Brink, Andreas Focks, Andreu Rico*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


The majority of pharmaceuticals and personal health-care products are ionisable molecules at environmentally relevant pHs. The ionization state of these molecules in freshwater ecosystems may influence their toxicity potential to aquatic organisms. In this study we evaluated to what extent varying pH conditions may influence the toxicity of the antibiotic enrofloxacin (ENR) and the personal care product ingredient triclosan (TCS) to three freshwater invertebrates: the ephemeropteran Cloeon dipterum, the amphipod Gammarus pulex and the snail Physella acuta. Acute toxicity tests were performed by adjusting the water pH to four nominal levels: 6.5, 7.0, 7.5 and 8.0. Furthermore, we tested the efficiency of three toxicity models with different assumptions regarding the uptake and toxicity potential of ionisable chemicals with the experimental data produced in this study. The results of the toxicity tests indicate that pH fluctuations of only 1.5 units can influence EC50-48 h and EC50-96 h values by a factor of 1.4–2.7. Overall, the model that only focuses on the fraction of neutral chemical and the model that takes into account ion-trapping of the test molecules showed the best performance, although present limitations to perform risk assessments across a wide pH range (i.e., well above or below the substance pKa). Under such conditions, the model that takes into account the toxicity of the neutral and the ionized chemical form is preferred. The results of this study show that pH fluctuations can have a considerable influence on toxicity thresholds, and should therefore be taken into account for the risk assessment of ionisable pharmaceuticals and personal health-care products. Based on our results, an assessment factor of at least three should be used to account for toxicity differences between standard laboratory and field pH conditions. The models evaluated here can be used to perform refined risk assessments by taking into account the influence of temporal and spatial pH fluctuations on aquatic toxicity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110172
JournalEcotoxicology and Environmental Safety
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2020


  • Freshwater invertebrates
  • Ionisable compounds
  • Personal care products
  • pH-related toxicity
  • Pharmaceuticals


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