A potential nitrification rate test (PNR) was used to identify metal toxicity in field-contaminated soils. The test was applied to metal salt–spiked soils, to 27 uncontaminated soils, and to 15 soils that are contaminated by former metal smelting activities. Four agricultural soils (pH 4.5–6.6) were spiked with various rates of CdCl2 (0–200 mg Cd/kg dry wt) or ZnCl2 (0–3,000 mg Cd/kg dry wt) and were equilibrated more than nine months prior to testing. The soil Zn EC50s of the PNR were between 150 and 350 mg Zn/kg dry weight. No continuous decrease of the nitrification with increasing Cd application was observed. The nitrification rate was reduced by between 50 and 80% at the highest Cd application in all soils. The PNRs of 27 uncontaminated soils varied widely (0–21 mg N/kg/d), but most of this variability is explained by soil pH (R2 = 0.77). The PNRs of the 15 contaminated soils were 0 to 44% of the values predicted for an uncontaminated soil at corresponding pH. Significant toxicity in field-contaminated soils was identified if the PNR was outside the 95% prediction interval of the PNR for an uncontaminated soil at corresponding pH and was found in seven soils. These soils contain 160 to 34,000 mg Zn/kg dry weight and 5 to 104 mg Cd/kg dry weight and had a pH >5.7. No toxicity could be detected below pH 5.6, where even a zero PNR value is within the 95% prediction interval of uncontaminated soils. It is concluded that the nitrification is sensitive to metal stress but that its power as a soil bioassay is low because of the high variability of the endpoint between uncontaminated soils. The ecological significance of the assay is discussed.
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