A bacterial bioassay, suitable for rapid screening to assess the relative toxicity of xenobiotic contaminated groundwater has been developed. The quantitative bioassay utilizes a decline in luminescence of the lux marked soil bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens on exposure to contaminated groundwaters from which effective concentration (EC) values can be assessed and compared. P. fluorescens was most sensitive to semivolatile organics in groundwaters but there was no correlation between EC value and chemical content. The sensitivity and reproducibility of the P. fluorescens bioassay was compared with that of Microtox and results showed that mean EC50 values for diluted ground water replicate samples were 20% and 18% respectively. This suggested that the P. fluorescens bioassay was as applicable to groundwater screening as the widely used Microtox bioassay. (C) 1997 Elsevier Science Ltd.