Nonylphenol (NP) is a breakdown product of alkylphenol polyethoxylates (APEs), an important class of non-ionic surfactants that are widely used in many detergent formulations and plastic products for industrial and domestic use. A complex microbial degradation pattern, characterized by the formation of several metabolic products that are more toxic than the parent compound, has been established for APEs. We have studied the in vivo metabolism and organ distribution of NP in juvenile salmon. Fish were exposed to a single oral dose of [3H]-4-n-NP (1295 KBq, 25 micrograms) and sampled at 24, 48 and 72 h after exposure. Metabolites were separated by radio-high-performance liquid chromatography and tentatively identified by cochromatography with standards characterized by mass spectrometry. Our results show that 4-n-NP was mainly metabolized in vivo to its corresponding glucuronide conjugate and to a lesser extent to various hydroxylated and oxidated compounds. Biliary excretion at 72 h after dosing amounted to 2.83 +/- 0.75% of the administered radioactivity. Kinetic analysis shows that NP-glucuronide accounted for 83, 95 and 81% of total radioactivity in the HPLC-injected bile sample at 24, 48 and 72 h, respectively, after exposure. The half-life of residues in carcass and muscle was between 24 and 48 h after exposure.