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Quantifying the concentration of crude oil microdroplets in oil–water preparations



Dissolved constituents of crude oil, particularly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), can contribute substantially to the toxicity of aquatic organisms. Measured aqueous concentrations of high–molecular weight PAHs (e.g., chrysenes, benzo[a]pyrene) as well as long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons can exceed the theoretical solubility of these sparingly soluble compounds. This is attributed to the presence of a “microdroplet” or colloidal oil phase. It is important to be able to quantify the dissolved fraction of these compounds in oil-in-water preparations that are commonly used in toxicity assays because the interpretation of test results often assumes that the compounds are dissolved. A method is presented to determine the microdroplet contribution in crude oil-in-water preparations using a comparison of predicted and measured aqueous concentrations. Measured concentrations are reproduced in the model by including both microdroplets and dissolved constituents of petroleum hydrocarbons. Microdroplets were found in all oil–water preparation data sets analyzed. Estimated microdroplet oil concentrations typically ranged from 10 to 700 µg oil/L water. The fraction of dissolved individual petroleum hydrocarbons ranges from 1.0 for highly soluble compounds (e.g., benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) to far less than 0.1 for sparingly soluble compounds (e.g., chrysenes) depending on the microdroplet oil concentration. The presence of these microdroplets complicates the interpretation of toxicity test data because they may exert an additional toxic effect due to a change in the exposure profile. The implications of the droplet model on toxicity are also discussed in terms of both dissolved hydrocarbons and microdroplets. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2012; 31: 1814–1822. © 2012 SETAC

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