Nitrate toxicity to aquatic animals: a review with new data for freshwater invertebrates

Chemosphere. 2005 Mar;58(9):1255-67. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2004.10.044.


Published data on nitrate (NO3-) toxicity to freshwater and marine animals are reviewed. New data on nitrate toxicity to the freshwater invertebrates Eulimnogammarus toletanus, Echinogammarus echinosetosus and Hydropsyche exocellata are also presented. The main toxic action of nitrate is due to the conversion of oxygen-carrying pigments to forms that are incapable of carrying oxygen. Nitrate toxicity to aquatic animals increases with increasing nitrate concentrations and exposure times. In contrast, nitrate toxicity may decrease with increasing body size, water salinity, and environmental adaptation. Freshwater animals appear to be more sensitive to nitrate than marine animals. A nitrate concentration of 10 mg NO3-N/l (USA federal maximum level for drinking water) can adversely affect, at least during long-term exposures, freshwater invertebrates (E. toletanus, E. echinosetosus, Cheumatopsyche pettiti, Hydropsyche occidentalis), fishes (Oncorhynchus mykiss, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, Salmo clarki), and amphibians (Pseudacris triseriata, Rana pipiens, Rana temporaria, Bufo bufo). Safe levels below this nitrate concentration are recommended to protect sensitive freshwater animals from nitrate pollution. Furthermore, a maximum level of 2 mg NO3-N/l would be appropriate for protecting the most sensitive freshwater species. In the case of marine animals, a maximum level of 20 mg NO3-N/l may in general be acceptable. However, early developmental stages of some marine invertebrates, that are well adapted to low nitrate concentrations, may be so susceptible to nitrate as sensitive freshwater invertebrates.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amphibians
  • Amphipoda / drug effects
  • Animals
  • Fishes
  • Fresh Water
  • Insecta / drug effects
  • Invertebrates / drug effects*
  • Larva / drug effects
  • Lethal Dose 50
  • Marine Biology
  • Nitrates / standards
  • Nitrates / toxicity*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Spain
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / standards
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity*


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical