• Chemical dispersants;
  • Oil spill;
  • Species sensitivity distribution curves;
  • Aquatic toxicity


Aquatic toxicity considerations are part of the net environmental benefit analysis and approval decision process on the use of dispersants in the event of an offshore oil spill. Substantial information is available on the acute toxicity of physically and chemically dispersed oil to a diverse subset of aquatic species generated under controlled laboratory conditions. However, most information has been generated following standard laboratory practices, which do not realistically represent oil spill conditions in the field. The goal of the present quantitative review is to evaluate the use of standard toxicity testing data to help inform decisions regarding dispersant use, recognizing some key issues with current practices, specifically, reporting toxicity metrics (nominal vs measured), exposure duration (standard durations vs short-term exposures), and exposure concentrations (constant vs spiked). Analytical chemistry data also were used to demonstrate the role of oil loading on acute toxicity and the influence of dispersants on chemical partitioning. The analyses presented here strongly suggest that decisions should be made, at a minimum, based on measured aqueous exposure concentrations and, ideally, using data from short-term exposure durations under spiked exposure concentrations. Available data sets are used to demonstrate how species sensitivity distribution curves can provide useful insights to the decision-making process on dispersant use. Finally, recommendations are provided, including the adoption of oil spill–appropriate toxicity testing practices. Environ Toxicol Chem 2014;33:732–742. © 2014 SETAC