The free ion activity model (FIAM) has already been confirmed under laboratory conditions for many trace metals but has still to be validated under natural conditions where the presence of natural organic ligands influences metal speciation and bioavailability. The goal of this study was to test if the FIAM is followed under natural conditions by measuring copper and zinc speciation as well as metal accumulation in periphyton. Periphyton was exposed in microcosms to natural river water with different added concentrations of copper (25-258 nM) or zinc (18-501 nM) and additions of a synthetic ligand (NTA). Free Cu2+ was in the range of 10(-16.5)-10(-14.5) M and Zn(2+) was in the range of 0.7-8.7 nM, as measured by competitive ligand exchange coupled with cathodic/anodic stripping voltammetry. Other metal complexes were either measured or computed. Bioaccumulation of zinc in periphyton appeared to be controlled by the free zinc ion concentration, confirming the FIAM. In contrast, bioaccumulation of copper was controlled by weakly complexed copper (including Cu2+ plus inorganic and weak organic complexes), which is in disagreement with the FIAM, and appears to be caused by limitation of copper diffusion due to very low free Cu2+ occurring in natural environments.
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