Food web-specific biomagnification of persistent organic pollutants

Science. 2007 Jul 13;317(5835):236-9. doi: 10.1126/science.1138275.


Substances that accumulate to hazardous levels in living organisms pose environmental and human-health risks, which governments seek to reduce or eliminate. Regulatory authorities identify bioaccumulative substances as hydrophobic, fat-soluble chemicals having high octanol-water partition coefficients (K(OW))(>/=100,000). Here we show that poorly metabolizable, moderately hydrophobic substances with a K(OW) between 100 and 100,000, which do not biomagnify (that is, increase in chemical concentration in organisms with increasing trophic level) in aquatic food webs, can biomagnify to a high degree in food webs containing air-breathing animals (including humans) because of their high octanol-air partition coefficient (K(OA)) and corresponding low rate of respiratory elimination to air. These low K(OW)-high K(OA) chemicals, representing a third of organic chemicals in commercial use, constitute an unidentified class of potentially bioaccumulative substances that require regulatory assessment to prevent possible ecosystem and human-health consequences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Canada
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis*
  • Environmental Pollutants / pharmacokinetics
  • Fishes / metabolism
  • Food Chain*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocarbons / analysis*
  • Hydrocarbons / pharmacokinetics
  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions
  • Invertebrates / metabolism*
  • Mammals / metabolism*
  • Respiration
  • Vertebrates / metabolism*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Hydrocarbons