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Acute Toxicity

Short-Term Testing

Acute toxicity or acute effects tests are rapid (2 to 4 days) procedures used to measure the concentration that will affect the test organisms, that is, make them sick.

Data from these tests can be used to:

  • Screen for toxicity (determine if the compound is toxic)
  • Rank toxicity to identify the best ingredients to continue investigating for use in a product
  • Assess the potential for effects in the environment

In some cases, one group of organisms will be more sensitive to a compound than another group. For example, insecticides are usually more toxic to invertebrates than to fish or algae.

When scientists start a toxicity test program, they may not know which group will be most sensitive to the new compound. So they usually test at least one plant, one invertebrate and one fish species. It is important that all three groups of organisms are tested because all are important in the environment, and effects on a plant may not tell us anything about effects on an animal and vice versa.

Species typically used in acute toxicity tests include the following:

Group Common Name


Function in the Environment

Plant green algae

Microscopic, single-celled aquatic plant

Base of the food chain, converts sunlight into biomass

Duckweed Aquatic

Floating plant

Base of the food chain, converts sunlight into biomass

Invertebrate Water Flea, Daphnia magna

Small freshwater zooplankton

Feeds upon algae and bacteria, eaten by larger invertebrates and fish

Amphipod, Gammarus or Hyallela species

Small freshwater zooplankton

Feeds upon algae, bacteria, and decaying organic matter, eaten by larger invertebrates and fish

Zebra fish, fathead minnow and rainbow trout

Common fish species used in toxicity testing

Eats other animals in the water, can be eaten by larger fish, fish-eating birds, snakes

Lethality is the most common endpoint for invertebrates and fish, while growth of a population of cells is used to understand effects on algae. Of course, aquatic ecosystems are composed of hundreds, or even thousands of different species.

The process scientists use to protect all these different species is called environmental risk assessment. When acute toxicity data does not provide enough information for scientists to decide if the compound is safe or not, chronic toxicity tests are conducted.

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