The conceptual imperfection of aquatic risk assessment tests: highlighting the need for tests designed to detect therapeutic effects of pharmaceutical contaminants

Standardized ecotoxicological tests still constitute the fundamental tools when doing risk-assessment of aquatic contaminants. These protocols are managed towards minimal mortality in the controls, which is not representative for natural systems where mortality is often high. This methodological bias, generated from assays where mortality in the control group is systematically disregarded, makes it difficult to measure therapeutic effects of pharmaceutical contaminants leading to lower mortality. This is of concern considering that such effects on exposed organisms still may have substantial ecological consequences. In this paper, we illustrate this conceptual problem by presenting empirical data for how the therapeutic effect of Oxazepam—a common contaminant of surface waters—lower mortality rates among exposed Eurasian perch ( Perca fluviatilis) from wild populations, at two different life stages. We found that fry hatched from roe that had been exposed to dilute concentrations (1.1 ± 0.3 μg l −1) of Oxazepam for 24 h 3–6 days prior to hatching showed lower mortality rates and increased activity 30 days after hatching. Similar effects, i.e. increased activity and lower mortality rates were also observed for 2-year old perch exposed to dilute Oxazepam concentrations (1.2 ± 0.4 μg l −1). We conclude that therapeutic effects from pharmaceutical contaminants need to be considered in risk assessment assays to avoid that important ecological effects from aquatic contaminants are systematically missed.

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