The concept of bioavailability and establishing uniform standards for permissible chemical contamination of soil
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Soils are very heterogeneous substrates providing an environmental matrix with varying spatial and temporal gradients of pH, organic carbon, particle size distribution, moisture content as well as biological factors associated with soil organisms. These chemical, physical as well as biological factors determine the bioavailability of chemicals to soil-dwelling invertebrates. This review of recent literature on the use of the bioavailability concept in soil ecotoxicology indicates that the concept is often used unqualified and indiscriminately to mean different things to different authors. A clear understanding of the concept is crucial for toxicity testing, environmental monitoring, risk assessment and the setting of soil quality criteria since knowledge of the actual exposure of organisms, and not merely the total amount of the chemical, is required. The aim of this paper is to contribute towards a clarification of the concept. Apart from defining or describing bioavailability, the problems related to the comparability of toxicity data between soils and species, inter-soil and inter-species comparisons of toxicity data are discussed. The potential role that biomarkers can play in assessing bioavailability, is touched upon. In an effort to prescribe uniform criteria or standards for environmental quality, both biotic and abiotic characteristics, which determine the bioavailablity of contaminants should be considered. This requires a dynamic approach which takes both uptake processes as well as a variety of other biological factors into consideration. It is concluded that bioavialiblity should be interpreted qualitatively and that the rate of uptake of a contaminant could possibly serve as a measure of bioavailability. The development of standardised protocols for exposure of selected species and the measurement of biological responses with the aid of biomarkers could serve to refine and take risk assessment a step further.