Ocean acidification increases the toxicity of contaminated sediments

Ocean acidification (OA) may alter the behaviour of sediment-bound metals, modifying their bioavailability and thus toxicity. We provide the first experimental test of this hypothesis with the amphipod Corophium volutator. Amphipods were exposed to two test sediments, one with relatively high metals concentrations (Σmetals 239 mg kg−1) and a reference sediment with lower contamination (Σmetals 82 mg kg−1) under conditions that mimic current and projected conditions of OA (390 to 1140 μatm pCO2). Survival and DNA damage was measured in the amphipods, while the flux of labile metals was measured in the sediment and water column using Diffusive Gradients in Thin-films. The contaminated sediments became more acutely toxic to C. volutator under elevated pCO2 (1140 μatm). There was also a 2.7-fold increase in DNA damage in amphipods exposed to the contaminated sediment at 750 μatm pCO2, as well as increased DNA-damage in organisms exposed to the reference sediment, but only at 1140 μatm pCO2. The projected pCO2 concentrations increased the flux of nickel (Ni) and zinc (Zn) to labile states in the water column and pore water. However, the increase in metal flux at elevated pCO2 was equal between the reference and contaminated sediments or, occasionally, greater from reference sediments. Hence, the toxicological interaction between OA and contaminants could not be explained by effects of pH on metal speciation. We propose that the additive physiological effects of OA and contaminants will be more important than changes in metal speciation in determining the responses of benthos to contaminated sediments under OA. Our data demonstrate clear potential for near-future OA to increase the susceptibility of benthic ecosystems to contaminants. Environmental policy should consider contaminants within the context of changing environmental conditions. Specifically, sediment metals guidelines may need to be re-evaluated to afford appropriate environmental protection under future conditions of OA.

Roberts D. A., Birchenough S. N. R., Lewis C., Sanders M. B., Bolam T. & Sheahan D., in press. Ocean acidification increases the toxicity of contaminated sediments. Global Change Biology. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12048. Article (subscription required).

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