Complexity in multimedia mass balance models: When are simple models adequate and when are more complex models necessary?

Thomas M. Cahill, Donald Mackay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Three environmental multimedia models of varying degrees of complexity are compared to assess when simple models are adequate and when more complex models are advantageous. The simplest model, the level II (L-II) model, assumes all environmental media are at chemical equilibrium, whereas the more complex models treat chemical disequilibrium between well-mixed media (standard level IV [L-IV] model) or the major media are subdivided into separate layers to simulate heterogeneity (high-resolution level IV [HR-IV] model). The three models are compared for their performance in predicting steady-state, regional concentrations; dynamic, local-scale concentrations; and chemical persistence in the environment. The results indicate that the L-IV model often provides adequate regional simulations when chemical emission occurs to air or water. This model also is useful for assessing chemical persistence in both steady-state and dynamic scenarios. More complex models, such as the HR-IV model, are suggested for local-scale, dynamic simulations or when the chemical emission occurs to soil because they better characterize rates of intramedia transport, which can greatly affect the model predictions. The simplest L-II model predicts environmental concentrations that can differ significantly from those of more complex models, but it is useful for establishing partitioning tendencies and for ranking chemicals for their relative persistence in steady-state situations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1404-1412
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Toxicology and Chemistry
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Complexity
  • Fugacity model
  • Multimedia model
  • Persistence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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