Risk assessment of pesticides in estuaries: a review addressing the persistence of an old problem in complex environments

  • Nagore Cuevas
  • Marta Martins
  • Pedro M. Costa


Estuaries, coastal lagoons and other transition ecosystems tend to become the ultimate reservoirs of pollutants transported by continental runoff, among which pesticides constitute the class of most concern. High amounts of dissolved and particulated organic matter greatly contribute to the accumulation of pesticides that eventually become trapped in sediments or find their way along food chains. Perhaps not so surprisingly, it is common to find elevated levels of pesticides in estuarine sediments decades after their embargo. Still, it remains challenging to address ecotoxicity in circumstances that invariably imply mixtures of contaminants and multiple factors affecting bioavailability. Despite advances in methods for detecting pesticides in waters, sediments and organisms, chemical data alone are insufficient to predict risk. Many researchers have been opting for ex situ bioassays that mimic the concentrations of pesticides in estuarine waters and sediments using a range of ecologically relevant model organisms, with emphasis on fish, molluscs and crustaceans. These experimental procedures unravelled novel risk factors and important insights on toxicological mechanisms, albeit with some prejudice of ecological relevance. On the other hand, in situ bioassays, translocation experiments and passive biomonitoring strive to spot causality through an intricate mesh of confounding factors and cocktails of pollutants. Seemingly, the most informative works are integrative approaches that combine different assessment strategies, multiple endpoints and advanced computational and geographical models to determine risk. State-of-art System Biology approaches combining high-content screening approaches involving “omics” and bioinformatics, can assist discovering and predicting novel Adverse Outcome Pathways that better reflect the cumulative risk of persisting and emerging pesticides among the wide range of stressors that affect estuaries.


Transition ecosystems Brackish water Sediments Toxicity Contaminant mixtures Systems biology 



The Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) is acknowledged for the funding for MARE through the strategic programme UID/MAR/04292/2013, and Unidade de Ciências Biomoleculares Aplicadas - UCIBIO which is financed by the national funds from FCT/MCTES (UID/Multi/04378/2013) and co-financed by the ERDF under the PT2020 Partnership Agreement (POCI-010145-FEDER-007728) REQUIMTE. FCT is also acknowledged for the grants SFRH/BPD/109734/2015 to M.M. and IF/00265/2015 to P.M.C. The research project GreenTech (PTDC/MAR-BIO/0113/2014), also funded by FCT, is acknowledged as well for the funding of the fellowship to N.C.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCIBIO - Research Unit on Applied Molecular Biosciences, Departamento de Ciências da VidaFaculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia da Universidade Nova de LisboaCaparicaPortugal
  2. 2.MARE - Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre, Departamento de Ciências e Engenharia do AmbienteFaculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia da Universidade Nova de LisboaCaparicaPortugal
  3. 3.UCIBIO, REQUIMTE, Departamento de Química, Faculdade de Ciências e TecnologiaUniversidade Nova de LisboaCaparicaPortugal

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