The chronic toxicity of crude oil to fish embryos depends on the chemical constituents of the test oil and on factors that control the exposure of embryos to those constituents. The partitioning of chemicals from oil to water depends on the surface area of oil exposed to water and thus on the susceptibility of oil to be dispersed into droplets. The chronic toxicity of four different crude oils to embryos of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) was measured by exposure to the water-accommodated fraction (WAF; no droplet formation) and to the chemically enhanced WAF (CEWAF) of each oil. When effects were compared with the amount of WAF or CEWAF added to test solutions, chemical dispersion increased toxicity dramatically, by >35 to >300-fold, with the smallest difference measured for the lightest and least viscous oil. When effects were compared with measured concentrations of oil in test solutions, there were no differences in toxicity between WAF and CEWAF treatments, indicating that chemical dispersion promoted droplet formation and the partitioning of hydrocarbons from oil to water. On a dilution basis, the differences in toxicity among the four oils were correlated with the concentrations in oil of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), particularly those with three to five rings, and with their viscosity, an index of dispersibility. However, when PAH concentrations were measured in solution, toxicity did not vary substantially among the four oils, suggesting that the PAH of each oil had equivalent toxicities and that differences in toxicity represented differences in dispersability. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2012;31:754–765. © 2011 SETAC
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