Inverse relationship between bioconcentration factor and exposure concentration for metals: Implications for hazard assessment of metals in the aquatic environment



The bioconcentration factor (BCF) and bioaccumulation factor (BAF) are used as the criteria for bioaccumulation in the context of identifying and classifying substances that are hazardous to the aquatic environment. The BCF/BAF criteria, while developed as surrogates for chronic toxicity and/or biomagnification of anthropogenic organic substances, are applied to all substances including metals. This work examines the theoretical and experimental basis for the use of BCF/BAF in the hazard assessment of Zn, Cd, Cu, Pb, Ni, and Ag. As well, BCF/BAFs for Hg (methyl and inorganic forms) and hexachlorobenzene (HCB) were evaluated. The BCF/BAF data for Zn, Cd, Cu, Pb, Ni, and Ag were characterized by extreme variability in mean BCF/BAF values and a clear inverse relationship between BCF/BAF and aqueous exposure. The high variability persisted when even when data were limited to an exposure range where chronic toxicity would be expected. Mean BCF/BAF values for Hg were also variable, but the inverse relationship was equivocal, in contrast with HCB, which conformed to the BCF model. This study illustrates that the BCF/BAF criteria, as currently applied, are inappropriate for the hazard identification and classification of metals. Furthermore, using BCF and BAF data leads to conclusions that are inconsistent with the toxicological data, as values are highest (indicating hazard) at low exposure concentrations and are lowest (indicating no hazard) at high exposure concentrations, where impacts are likely. Bioconcentration and bioaccumulation factors do not distinguish between essential mineral nutrient, normal background metal bioaccumulation, the adaptive capabilities of animals to vary uptake and elimination within the spectrum of exposure regimes, nor the specific ability to sequester, detoxify, and store internalized metal from metal uptake that results in adverse effect. An alternative to BCF, the accumulation factor (ACF), for metals was assessed and, while providing an improvement, it did not provide a complete solution. A bioaccumulation criterion for the hazard identification of metals is required, and work directed at linking chronic toxicity and bioaccumulation may provide some solutions.