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Rapid Screening for Soil Ecotoxicity with a Battery of Luminescent Bacteria Tests

Margit Heinlaan, Anne Kahru, Kaja Kasemets, Imbi Kurvet, Cristophe Waterlot, Kalev Sepp, Henri-Charles Dubourguier and Francis Douay

A bacterial test battery, involving i) Microtox™, an aquatic test, ii) the Flash assay, a soil-suspension test (with Vibrio fischeri as the test organism), and iii) the Metal Detector assay, a semi-specific aquatic test for heavy metals (with recombinant luminescent Escherichia coli), was used in a combined toxicological and chemical hazard assessment of Estonian soils sampled from a former Soviet military airfield (13 samples) and from traffic-influenced roadsides (5 samples). The soils showed slightly elevated levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), but not of heavy metals. In most of the samples, the levels of TPH did not exceed the Estonian permitted limit values set for residential areas. Toxicity testing was performed on both fresh and dried soils, after aqueous extraction for 1 hour and 24 hours. The toxicity results obtained with the Microtox™ test did not significantly differ in all of the sample treatment schemes; however, it appeared that the drying and sieving of the soils increased the bioavailability of toxicants, probably due to an enlarged reactive soil surface area. According to chemical analysis of the soils and the data from the Microtox™ test and the Metal Detector assay (performed on aqueous elutriates of the soils), these soils would not be considered to be hazardous. In contrast, the Flash assay performed on soil–water suspensions of dried soils, showed that most of the soils were toxic and thus probably contained undetermined particle-bound bioavailable toxicants. The photobacterial toxicity test (the Flash assay) can be recommended for the rapid screening of soils, as it is sensitive, cheap and inexpensive, and provides valuable information on particle-bound bioavailable toxicants, useful for complementing a chemical analysis and for assessing the risks originating from polluted soils.