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Aquat Toxicol. 2003 Mar 17;63(1):43-63.

Joint algal toxicity of 16 dissimilarly acting chemicals is predictable by the concept of independent action.

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  • 1Department of Biology and Chemistry, University of Bremen, D-28334 Bremen, Germany.


For a predictive assessment of the aquatic toxicity of chemical mixtures, two competing concepts are available: concentration addition and independent action. Concentration addition is generally regarded as a reasonable expectation for the joint toxicity of similarly acting substances. In the opposite case of dissimilarly acting toxicants the choice of the most appropriate concept is a controversial issue. In tests with freshwater algae we therefore studied the extreme situation of multiple exposure to chemicals with strictly different specific mechanisms of action. Concentration response analyses were performed for 16 different biocides, and for mixtures containing all 16 substances in two different concentration ratios. Observed mixture toxicity was compared with predictions, calculated from the concentration response functions of individual toxicants by alternatively applying both concepts. The assumption of independent action yielded accurate predictions, irrespective of the mixture ratio or the effect level under consideration. Moreover, results even demonstrate that dissimilarly acting chemicals can show significant joint effects, predictable by independent action, when combined in concentrations below individual NOEC values, statistically estimated to elicit insignificant individual effects of only 1%. The alternative hypothesis of concentration addition resulted in overestimation of mixture toxicity, but differences between observed and predicted effect concentrations did not exceed a factor of 3.2. This finding complies with previous studies, which indicated near concentration-additive action of mixtures of dissimilarly acting substances. Nevertheless, with the scientific objective to predict multi-component mixture toxicity with the highest possible accuracy, concentration addition obviously is no universal solution. Independent action proves to be superior where components are well known to interact specifically with different molecular target sites, and provided that reliable statistical estimates of low toxic effects of individual mixture constituents can be given. With a regulatory perspective, however, fulfilment of both conditions may be regarded as an extraordinary situation, and hence concentration addition may be defendable as a pragmatic and precautionary default assumption.

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