Effect-based trigger values for in vitro bioassays: Reading across from existing water quality guideline values
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Cell-based bioassays are becoming increasingly popular in water quality assessment. The new generations of reporter-gene assays are very sensitive and effects are often detected in very clean water types such as drinking water and recycled water. For monitoring applications it is therefore imperative to derive trigger values that differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable effect levels. In this proof-of-concept paper, we propose a statistical method to read directly across from chemical guideline values to trigger values without the need to perform in vitro to in vivo extrapolations. The derivation is based on matching effect concentrations with existing chemical guideline values and filtering out appropriate chemicals that are responsive in the given bioassays at concentrations in the range of the guideline values. To account for the mixture effects of many chemicals acting together in a complex water sample, we propose bioanalytical equivalents that integrate the effects of groups of chemicals with the same mode of action that act in a concentration-additive manner. Statistical distribution methods are proposed to derive a specific effect-based trigger bioanalytical equivalent concentration (EBT-BEQ) for each bioassay of environmental interest that targets receptor-mediated toxicity. Even bioassays that are indicative of the same mode of action have slightly different numeric trigger values due to differences in their inherent sensitivity. The algorithm was applied to 18 cell-based bioassays and 11 provisional effect-based trigger bioanalytical equivalents were derived as an illustrative example using the 349 chemical guideline values protective for human health of the Australian Guidelines for Water Recycling. We illustrate the applicability using the example of a diverse set of water samples including recycled water. Most recycled water samples were compliant with the proposed triggers while wastewater effluent would not have been compliant with a few. The approach is readily adaptable to any water type and guideline or regulatory framework and can be expanded from the protection goal of human health to environmental protection targets. While this work constitutes a proof of principle, the applicability remains limited at present due to insufficient experimental bioassay data on individual regulated chemicals and the derived effect-based trigger values are of course only provisional. Once the experimental database is expanded and made more robust, the proposed effect-based trigger values may provide guidance in a regulatory context.