An element or compound in a natural water system is usually distributed between a variety of physico-chemical forms, both dissolved and particulate. The distribution is determined by the properties of the ion or molecule in question and by a number of major variables, including ionic strength, the nature and concentrations of major dissolved elements, particulate matter and organic complexing material, pH and the electron activity (pE); it may thus vary widely between different environments. The design of experiments to study sublethal effects of pollutants in sea water ideally requires that the test medium is closely matched to the environment for which information is needed, with respect to the ranges of concentration and activity, and the chemical speciation, of the pollutant and of any other constituents which may influence its effects. This in turn requires either that the pollutant can be added in the appropriate forms, implying a knowledge of the existing speciation, or that the added material rapidly exchanges with the forms already present. The implications of these requirements are most apparent for those pollutants that show complex chemical behaviour in sea water. This account concentrates on metals of toxicological significance. Consideration of particulate associations, redox speciation, and complex formation in the dissolved state with inorganic and organic ligands, suggests that physicochemical factors limit the usefulness, in terms of environmental predictions, of experimental studies of biological effects of metals, both inherently and through inadequate knowledge of environmental speciation and the mechanisms and rates of interconversion between species. Of particular importance are non-equilibrium features in speciation, such as the presence of thermodynamically unstable oxidation states and of kinetically non-labile associations. Interpretation of the nature of these associations is complicated by the presence of colloidal and organic macromolecular material in dissolved fractions as conventionally defined. While the chemical behaviour of some substances in sea water is considerably less complicated than that of the trace metals, there is a need with all types of pollutants for greater attention to physico-chemical factors in both the design and interpretation of experiments to investigate biological effects.