Nonylphenol (NP) and octylphenol (OP), both of which are biodegradation products of alkylphenols, are widely used in industrial applications and in some domestic products. These chemicals are found widely in surface water and aquatic sediments. We have carried out a comparative embryotoxicity analysis of the effects of increasing concentrations of NP (seven concentrations ranging from 0.937 to 18.74 mu g/l) and OP (six concentrations ranging from 5 to 160 mu g/l) on embryos of the sea urchin Arbacia lixula. The indicators evaluated were larval malformations, developmental arrest and embryonic/larval mortality. The results revealed that low concentrations of these chemicals (NP, OP) generally caused malformations in the skeletal system. High concentrations (18.74 mu g NP/l, 160 mu g OP/l) were found to inhibit the growth of embryos in the early life stages by preventing mitosis. We conclude that NP and OP present a major risk to the normal development of A. lixula at the low concentrations that have been recorded in the environment. These chemicals are therefore most likely to represent an ecological hazard at the population level given the cumulative effects of other environmental pollutants.