Quantifying Synergy : A Systematic Review of Mixture Toxicity Studies within Environmental Toxicology

Cocktail effects and synergistic interactions of chemicals in mixtures are an area of great concern to both the public and regulatory authorities. The main concern is whether some chemicals can enhance the effect of other chemicals, so that they jointly exert a larger effect than predicted. This phenomenon is called synergy. Here we present a review of the scientific literature on three main groups of environmentally relevant chemical toxicants : pesticides, metal ions and antifouling compounds. The aim of the review is to determine 1) the frequency of synergy, 2) the extent of synergy, 3) whether any particular groups or classes of chemicals tend to induce synergy, and 4) which physiological mechanisms might be responsible for this synergy. Synergy is here defined as mixtures with minimum two-fold difference between observed and predicted effect concentrations using Concentration Addition (CA) as a reference model and including both lethal and sub-lethal endpoints. The results showed that synergy occurred in 7%, 3% and 26% of the 194, 21 and 136 binary pesticide, metal and antifoulants mixtures included in the data compilation on frequency. The difference between observed and predicted effect concentrations was rarely more than 10-fold. For pesticides, synergistic mixtures included cholinesterase inhibitors or azole fungicides in 95% of 69 described cases. Both groups of pesticides are known to interfere with metabolic degradation of other xenobiotics. For the four synergistic metal and 47 synergistic antifoulant mixtures the pattern in terms of chemical groups inducing synergy was less clear. Hypotheses in terms of mechanisms governing these interactions are discussed. It was concluded that true synergistic interactions between chemicals are rare and often occur at high concentrations. Addressing the cumulative rather than synergistic effect of co-occurring chemicals, using standard models as CA, is therefore regarded as the most important step in the risk assessment of chemical cocktails.