With the significant increase in the production and use of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), they will be inevitably released into aquatic environments. Therefore, the fate and transport of CNTs in aqueous solutions have attracted extensive attention. In the present work, the effects of natural organic matter (NOM), solution pH and ionic strength on adsorption of three synthetic organic chemicals (SOCs) by both pristine and surface functionalized single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNTs) were investigated. The three SOCs (phenanthrene, biphenyl, and 2-phenylphenol) with different planarity, polarity, and hydrogen/electron-donor/acceptor ability, representing typical scenarios for the SOC-CNT interactions, were employed as probe molecules. Among the three background solution characteristics examined, NOM showed the most significant effect on SOC adsorption, while solution pH and ionic strength exhibited minimal or negligible impacts. The presence of NOM greatly suppressed the SOC adsorption by CNTs, and the impact on the SWNTs was higher than that on the MWNTs. The planarity and hydrophobicity of SOCs were two important factors determining the effects of NOM, solution pH and ionic strength on their adsorption by CNTs. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.