Abstract The paper shows the results from a number of lab-scale washing treatments using the four chelating agents EDTA, NTA, citric acid and [S,S]-EDDS aiming at the remediation of a real heavy metal-contaminated sediment. Investigation of the influence of chelant type and concentration as well as solution pH was the major focus of the work. The analysis of speciation of metals and chelating agents in solution was carried out through geochemical speciation modelling in order to identify the optimal conditions for the washing process as well as to evaluate the competition phenomena of metal–chelant complexes in solution. The major competing cations were found to be Ca above all and Mg under specific conditions. Among the investigated chelating agents, EDDS appeared to be less affected by competition by major cations while ensuring adequate heavy metal extraction efficiencies. For a 1:1 chelant/metal ratio, the following ranking was observed: EDDS > Cit > NTA > EDTA for As, EDDS > NTA ≅ EDTA ≫ Cit for Cu, EDDS ≅ EDTA ≅ NTA > Cit for Zn, EDTA > NTA > EDDS > Cit for Pb at pH 5 and EDTA ≅ EDDS ≅ NTA ≫ Cit for Pb at pH 8. For a 10:1 chelant/metal ratio geochemical modelling indicated that at the equilibrium the extracting solutions were dominated by the free form of the chelating agents, indicating the inability of such species to complex trace metals due the strong interactions existing between heavy metal ions and sediment constituents.