The presence of dissolved humic substances (HS, fulvic and humic acids) generally reduces the uptake of hydrophobic organic compounds into aquatic organisms. The extent of this effect depends both on the concentration and on the origin of the HS. The aim of this study was to investigate the role of qualitative differences between HS from different origins. The effects of seven different HS on the bioconcentration of pyrene and benzo[a]pyrene (BaP) in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans were related to the spectroscopic and chemical properties of the HS. The effect of each humic material on the bioconcentration of pyrene or BaP was quantified as a 'biologically determined' partition coefficient K(DOC). We observed significant linear relationships between K(DOC) and the atomic H/C ratio, the specific absorptivity at 254 nm, the content of aromatic carbons (as determined by 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the copper-complexing capacity, the content of phenolic OH groups, and the molecular weight of the HS. There was no discernible relationship of K(DOC) with the atomic (N + O)/C ratio, an indicator of the polarity of HS. Taken together, our results show that the variability in the effects of HS from different origins could be related to variations in bulk properties of the HS. Parameters describing the aromaticity of the humic materials seemed to be most useful for estimating effects of HS on the bioconcentration of pyrene and BaP.