Mechanistic sediment quality guidelines based on contaminant bioavailability: Equilibrium partitioning sediment benchmarks

Robert M. Burgess, Walter J. Berry, David R. Mount, Dominic M. Di Toro

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

89 Scopus citations


Globally, estimated costs to manage (i.e., remediate and monitor) contaminated sediments are in the billions of U.S. dollars. Biologically based approaches for assessing the contaminated sediments which pose the greatest ecological risk range from toxicity testing to benthic community analysis. In addition, chemically based sediment quality guidelines (SQGs) provide a relatively inexpensive line of evidence for supporting these assessments. The present study summarizes a mechanistic SQG based on equilibrium partitioning (EqP), which uses the dissolved concentrations of contaminants in sediment interstitial waters as a surrogate for bioavailable contaminant concentrations. The EqP-based mechanistic SQGs are called equilibrium partitioning sediment benchmarks (ESBs). Sediment concentrations less than or equal to the ESB values are not expected to result in adverse effects and benthic organisms should be protected, while sediment concentrations above the ESB values may result in adverse effects to benthic organisms. In the present study, ESB values are reported for 34 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, 32 other organic contaminants, and seven metals (cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, silver, zinc). Also included is an overview of EqP theory, ESB derivation, examples of applying ESB values, and considerations when using ESBs. The ESBs are intended as a complement to existing sediment-assessment tools, to assist in determining the extent of sediment contamination, to help identify chemicals causing toxicity, and to serve as targets for pollutant loading control measures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)102-114
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental Toxicology and Chemistry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013


  • Bioavailability
  • Contaminated sediment
  • Equilibrium partitioning
  • Equilibrium partitioning sediment benchmark
  • Sediment quality guideline


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