The assessment of water quality is crucial for safeguarding drinking water resources and ecosystem integrity. To this end, sample preparation and extraction is critically important, especially when investigating emerging contaminants and the toxicity of water samples. As extraction methods are rarely optimised for bioassays but rather adopted from chemical analysis, this may result in a misrepresentation of the actual toxicity.
In this study, surface water, groundwater, hospital and municipal wastewater were used to characterise the impacts of common sample preparation techniques (acidification, filtration and solid phase extraction (SPE)) on the outcomes of eleven in vitro bioassays. The latter covered endocrine activity (reporter gene assays for estrogen, androgen, aryl-hydrocarbon, retinoic acid, retinoid X, vitamin D, thyroid receptor), mutagenicity (Ames fluctuation test), genotoxicity (umu test) and cytotoxicity. Water samples extracted using different SPE sorbents (Oasis HLB, Supelco ENVI-Carb+, Telos C18/ENV) at acidic and neutral pH were compared for their performance in recovering biological effects.
Acidification, commonly used for stabilisation, significantly altered the endocrine activity and toxicity of most (waste)water samples. Sample filtration did not affect the majority of endpoints but in certain cases affected the (anti-)estrogenic and dioxin-like activities. SPE extracts (10.4 × final concentration), including WWTP effluents, induced significant endocrine effects that were not detected in aqueous samples (0.63 × final concentration), such as estrogenic, (anti-)androgenic and dioxin-like activities. When ranking the SPE methods using multivariate Pareto optimisation an extraction with Telos C18/ENV at pH 7 was most effective in recovering toxicity. At the same time, these extracts were highly cytotoxic masking the endpoint under investigation. Compared to that, extraction at pH 2.5 enriched less cytotoxicity.
In summary, our study demonstrates that sample preparation and extraction critically affect the outcome of bioassays when assessing the toxicity of water samples. Depending on the water matrix and the bioassay, these methods need to be optimised to accurately assess water quality.