U.S. Geological Survey - Environmental Health

Vol. 6, No. 2 – Winter 2008/2009

GeoHealth Newsletter

  USGS Activities Related to Human Health
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Plague Vaccine for Endangered Ferrets

USGS scientist injects a vaccine into a black-footed ferret
USGS scientist injects a vaccine into a black-footed ferret. See the Sylvatic Plague Photo Gallery for more photos.

The connection between plague in an endangered ferret and plague in humans might seem far-fetched, but scientists are increasingly concerned about diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Scientists have known that the potential for transmission is likely especially when humans come into direct contact or are in close proximity with infected animals. Rats are the normal culprits, but the potential for transmission from wild animals is also likely. In November 2007 a National Park Service biologist contracted plague from a cougar and died. Sylvatic plague is a bacterial disease caused by Yersinia pestis and transmitted mostly by fleas. It afflicts many mammalian species, including humans. The endangered black-footed ferret is no exception. USGS scientists, in collaboration with colleagues at other federal agencies and the University of Wisconsin, are developing and testing vaccines that can be used to protect black-footed ferrets and their primary prey, prairie dogs, against plague. Sylvatic plague is usually deadly for both black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs. After success with captive animals, wildlife biologists have vaccinated ferrets and prairie dogs in an effort to control an outbreak of plague in the Conata Basin area of Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in southwestern South Dakota. This is the first time the vaccine has been used during a major plague epizootic (an animal version of a human epidemic). However, injectable vaccines are not practical for field use in free-ranging wild animals. Ultimately, management of the disease in ferrets will depend on managing the disease in prairie dogs. As one could imagine, immunizing entire populations of wild prairie dogs and other rodents is highly challenging, but preliminary studies indicate prairie dogs can be successfully immunized by distribution of vaccine-laden baits in the wild. These studies suggest that plague could be managed through oral immunization, which is good news. As residential areas encroach on plague outbreak or endemic areas, controlling plague in wildlife and tracking trends in plague transmission becomes more and more relevant to public health.

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Genetics Studies Can be Useful During Bear Maulings Investigations

Bear warring sign in a park
Photo Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Adam Korzekwa

The news is full of stories about using DNA evidence to solve many types of crimes. USGS scientists have also shown that an adaptation of these same modern molecular genetic techniques can be applied to issues of public safety involving attacks by wild animals. Scientists from the USGS Alaska Science Center, Molecular Ecology Laboratory positively identified, through DNA analysis, that a bear killed by Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) was the same bear that attacked a runner on an Anchorage trail this past summer. The scientists analyzed samples collected from the runner's clothing and compared them with the bear's DNA and with DNA previously collected from over 20 brown bears in the Anchorage area. Genetic data obtained from the samples from the clothing were identical to the DNA extracted from the bear killed by ADFG. These results demonstrate the utility of applying DNA-based techniques to issues of public safety involving attacks by wild animals.

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Low Levels of Man-Made Chemicals Found in Drinking Water

Pie Chart - Concentrations were low in the source water tested. 76 percent less than 0.1 parts per billion (ppb), 21 percent 0.1 to 1 ppb, 3 percent greater than 1 ppb. Approximately 130 compounds detected

Low levels of certain man-made chemicals remain in public-water supplies after being treated in selected community water facilities. This is the finding of a USGS study of water from nine rivers used as a source of supply for public water systems and in drinking water after treatment. Most of the man-made chemicals assessed in the study are unregulated in drinking water and are not required to be monitored or removed. Scientists tested water samples for about 260 commonly used chemicals, including pesticides, solvents, gasoline hydrocarbons, personal care and household-use products, disinfection by-products, and manufacturing additives. Low levels of about 130 of the man-made chemicals were detected in rivers before treatment at the public water facilities. Nearly two-thirds of those chemicals were also detected after treatment. Concentrations of the detected compounds generally were less than one microgram per liter (1 µg/L). Safe drinking water supplies are important for maintaining and preserving public health. The results of this study and others like it will help water-resource managers develop sound policies and practices that help protect human health.

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Genetics Provide Evidence for the Movement of Avian Influenza Viruses from Asia to North America via Migratory Birds

USGS technician processing samples to test for avian influenza virus
USGS technician processing samples to test for avian influenza virus. (photo courtesy of Don Becker, USGS)

As part of a multi-agency research effort to understand the role of migratory birds in the transfer of avian influenza viruses between Asia and North America, USGS scientists and their colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Tokyo have found genetic evidence supporting the role of migratory birds in the intercontinental transfer of influenza viruses. In an article published in Molecular Ecology, USGS scientists reported that nearly half of the low pathogenic avian influenza viruses they found in wild northern pintail ducks in Alaska contained at least one (of eight) gene segments that were more closely related to Asian than to North American strains of avian influenza. USGS scientists, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaskan state agencies, and Alaskan native communities, obtained samples from more than 1,400 northern pintails from locations throughout Alaska. Samples containing viruses were then analyzed and compared to virus samples taken from other birds in Eastern Asia where northern pintails are known to winter and from North American waterfowl. Researchers chose northern pintails as the focus of the study because (1) they are known to migrate between North America and Asia, (2) they are fairly common in North America and Asia, and (3) they are frequently infected by low pathogenic avian influenza. None of the samples were found to contain completely Asian-origin viruses and none were highly pathogenic. These results demonstrate the advantage of applying genetic-based techniques to assess the global movement of diseases by wild animals.

Northern Pintail on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta
Northern Pintail on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta

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Are Pharmaceuticals in Feed Water to Drinking Water Facilities?

Photos of a ground water wellhead (A) and a surface water intake structure (B)
USGS scientists collected raw water-quality samples from sampling ports at wellheads for ground water (A) or at intake structures for surface water (B) before any treatment or processing.

USGS scientists conducted the first national study of the occurrence of selected pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, detergents, flame retardants, naturally occurring sterols, and other chemicals of emerging environmental concern in untreated sources of drinking water in the United States. These emerging contaminants are commonly associated with animal and human waste waters. USGS scientists collected data from 49 surface-water intakes and 25 wells that would subsequently have been treated for drinking water. The samples were collected in 25 states and Puerto Rico. This study follows previous USGS research on emerging contaminants in susceptible ground water and surface water, that is, flowing from areas of high population density and/or high density of animal agriculture. The results of these studies will help water-resource managers, health professionals, scientists, and regulators determine if the concentrations and mixtures of chemicals found pose a threat to human or ecological health.

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Lead Shot and Sinkers: Weighty Implications for Ground-Water Quality and Ecological Health

Lead shot in the fall zone at the Broadkiln Sportsman's Club
Lead shot in the fall zone at the Broadkiln Sportsman’s Club. (Courtesy of Daniel J. Soeder, USGS)

Lead is a metal with no known beneficial role in biological systems, and its use in gasoline, paint, pesticides, and solder in food cans has nearly been eliminated. Although lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, its use in ammunition for upland hunting (typically hunting for small game—quail, pheasants, rabbits, —on dry land), shooting sports, and in fishing tackle remains common. USGS scientists and their colleagues authored a technical review published by The Wildlife Society concluding that significant amounts of lead are left behind in the environment from the use of lead shotgun pellets, bullets, and fishing tackle. At upland hunting sites, up to 400,000 shot per acre may be deposited annually. Individual shooting ranges may receive 1.5 to more than 16 tons of lead shot and bullets annually. Although lead from spent ammunition and lost fishing tackle is not readily released into the environment, given the right environmental conditions it can slowly dissolve in water. Scientists have found some cases of lead contamination in ground water near some shooting ranges and at heavily hunted sites, particularly those hunted year after year. The most significant hazard to wildlife is through direct ingestion of spent lead shot and bullets, lost fishing sinkers and tackle, and related fragments, or through consumption of wounded or dead prey containing lead shot, bullets, and/or fragments. This report provides useful information for resource managers to assess lead issues and to develop sound management policies.

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A New Tool to Help Assess Environmental Human Health Threats Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Map of the border between the United
                                    States and Mexico with study areas shown.

Dramatic urban growth, rapid industrialization, and infrastructure problems in cities along the border between the United States and Mexico have increase environmental problems and risks associated with human health. These stressors threaten the quality of life in the region and raise concerns about the interdependence of environmental sustainability and human health. To help environmental and public-health professionals of both nations USGS scientists are developing a tool that will provide easy access to environmental-quality data to aid in identifying human populations at risk. The map-based tool uses geospatial statistical techniques to analyze various indicators of environmental quality (water quality, soil geochemistry, land use, and other data) relative to measures of fish and human health. The tool is being developed as part to the USGS U.S.-Mexico Border Environmental Health Initiative (BEHI). BEHI is a multi-agency effort involving collaboration between Federal and local entities in both the U.S. and Mexico.

Screen captured image of the on-line The Internet Mapping Service application.
The Internet Mapping Service provides users with binational datasets and the tools to manipulate them over the Internet. The image above is an example of a user-selected map of the Brownsville, Texas, area with georeferenced tissue residue information for various aquatic and riparian species.

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Beach Sand Often More Contaminated than Water

Neshotah Beach, Manitowoc County, Wis.
Neshotah Beach, Manitowoc County, Wis. Source: Wisconsin Beach Health Web Site

Recent research has revealed that beach sand contains high concentrations of E. coli and other fecal indicator bacteria, often greatly exceeding the concentration in beach water. In many States beach water is routinely analyzed for E. coli and other fecal indicator bacteria to determine whether human sewage is present. When bacteria concentrations in water exceed a certain threshold, beaches are typically closed to swimming or swimming advisories are posted. For most beach closings, the reason for high bacteria concentrations remains unknown. However; there is growing evidence that beach closings due to elevated fecal indicator bacteria may be linked to bacteria in the sand. Bacteria are often present in high concentrations in beach sand independent of any recent contamination events. The health risk associated with these bacteria is as yet unknown, but preliminary studies are being conducted. This information will potentially help public-health and environmental professionals make informed decisions about the causes behind beach closings.

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No Child Left Inside

2008 Earth Science Week Logo

Step away from the television! Turn off your computer! Head for the outdoors! The evidence is growing: Americans spend less and less time outdoors. During Earth Science Week 2008 the USGS encouraged everyone, especially young people, to get outside. USGS Earth Science Week Web site offered a few solutions, such as a list of parks with notes on interesting, exciting or unique things to do in each park, and downloadable 3-D National Parks map with instructions on how to create your own 3-D glasses! The USGS partnered with the American Geological Institute and its member societies to sponsor this annual international event. Earth Science Week 2009 is October 11-17.

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2009 National Environmental Public Health Tracking Conference, Washington, D.C., February 24-26, 2009

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is hosting the 2009 National Environmental Public Health Tracking Conference. The conference theme is TRACKS2009: The Future of Environmental Public Health. This conference will serve as the platform for CDC to officially launch its National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network. This is a nationwide network of integrated health and environmental data to be used to provide information in support of actions that improve the health of communities.

Meeting Web Site


19th Annual AEHS Meeting and West Coast Conference on Soils, Sediments, and Water, San Diego, Calif., March 9-12, 2009

The Association for Environmental Health and Sciences (AEHS) is hosting the 19th Annual AEHS Meeting and West Coast Conference on Soils, Sediments, and Water, San Diego, Calif., March 9-12, 2009. The goal of the conference is to bring the environmental science community closer together by providing a forum to facilitate the exchange of information on technological advances, new scientific achievements, and the effectiveness of standing environmental regulation programs.

Meeting Web Site


The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Milstein Science Symposium: Exploring The Dynamic Relationship Between Health And The Environment, New York City, New York, April 2-3, 2009

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation is hosting the Milstein Science Symposium: Exploring The Dynamic Relationship Between Health And The Environment at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, New York, on April 2-3, 2009. The Symposium will present a diversity of viewpoints and experiences, spanning the natural, medical, and social sciences, as well as policy planning. Presenters will discuss knowledge/data gaps and the limitations of current approaches, and examine innovative methods that move beyond speculation to a grounded understanding of impacts and realistic solutions. Particular emphasis will be placed on consideration of multiple and interacting stressors and decision making for maximizing benefits to both health and the environment.

Meeting Web Site


GIS in Public Health Conference, Providence, R.I., June 5-8, 2009

The Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) is hosting the GIS in Public Health Conference in Providence, R.I., on June 5-8, 2009. The goal of the conference is to provide an open and participatory forum for advancing the effective use of spatial information and geographic information system technologies across the domains of public health, healthcare and community health preparedness.

Meeting Web Site


National Environmental Health Association 73rd Annual Educational Conference and Exhibition, Atlanta, Ga., June 21-24, 2009

National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) is hosting the National Environmental Health Association 73rd Annual Educational Conference and Exhibition in Atlanta, Ga., on June 21-24, 2009. The conference will hold educational sessions covering a broad range of environmental health topics and issues. NEHA’s 73rd AEC and Exhibition looks to advance the field of environmental health and protection and the professionals that seek to provide a healthful environment for all.

Meeting Web Site


Environmental Health Risk 2009: Fifth International Conference on the Impact of Environmental Factors on Health, New Forest, United Kingdom, September 21-23, 2009

The Conference aims to provide a forum for the dissemination and exchange of information on the diverse aspects of the impact of environmental factors on health across different disciplines.

Meeting Web Site

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 New Publications go to top of page 
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Coming Soon!

Hirsch, R.M., Hamilton, P.A., Miller, T.L., and Myers, D.N., 2008, Key water issues now facing our Nation: AWRA Impact (IN PRESS).

Rochlin, I., Ginsberg, H.S., and Campbell, S.R., 2009, Distribution and abundance of host-seeking Culex species at three proximate locations with different levels of West Nile virus (WNV) activity: American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (IN PRESS)

Watkinson, A.J., Murby, E.J., Kolpin, D.W., and Costanzo, S.D., 2009, The occurrence of antibiotics in an urban watershed--From wastewater to drinking water: Science of the Total Environment, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2008.11.059 (IN PRESS).

Published Recently!

Barnes, K.K., Kolpin, D.W., Focazio, M.J., Furlong, E.T., Meyer, M.T., Zaugg, S.D., Haack, S.K., Barber, L.B., and Thurman, E.M., 2008, Water-quality data for pharmaceuticals and other organic wastewater contaminants in ground water and in untreated drinking water sources in the United States, 2000-01: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2008-1293, 6 p. plus tables p.

Barnes, K.K., Kolpin, D.W., Furlong, E.T., Zaugg, S.D., Meyer, M.T., and Barber, L.B., 2008, A national reconnaissance of pharmaceuticals and other organic wastewater contaminants in the United States--I. Groundwater: Science of the Total Environment, v. 402, no. 2-3, p. 192-200, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2008.04.028.

Bexfield, L.M., and Anderholm, S.K., 2008, Potential chemical effects of changes in the source of water supply for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2006?5171, 48 p.

Brayton, M.J., Denver, J.M., Delzer, G.C., and Hamilton, P.A., 2008, Organic compounds in Potomac River water used for public supply near Washington, D.C., 2003–05: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2007–3085, 6 p.

Focazio, M.J., Kolpin, D.W., Barnes, K.K., Furlong, E.T., Meyer, M.T., Zaugg, S.D., Barber, L.B., and Thurman, E.M., 2008, A national reconnaissance of pharmaceuticals and other organic wastewater contaminants in the United States--II. Untreated drinking water sources: Science of the Total Environment, v. 402, no. 2-3, p. 201-216, doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2008.02.021.

Ginsberg, H.S., 2008, Potential effects of mixed infections in ticks on transmission dynamics of pathogens--Comparative analysis of published records: Experimental and Applied Acarology, v. 46, no. 1-4, pp. 29-41, doi:10.1007/s10493-008-9175-5.

Harvey, R.W., Metge, D.W., Shapiro, A.M., Renken, R.A., Osborn, C.L., Ryan, J.N., Cunningham, K.J., and Landkamer, L., 2008, Pathogen and chemical transport in the karst limestone of the Biscayne aquifer--3. Use of microspheres to estimate the transport potential of Cryptosporidium parvum oocysts: Water Resources Research, v. 44, W08431, doi:10.1029/2007WR006060.

Jarvi, S., Lieberman, M., Hofmeister, K., Nerurkar, V., Wong, T., and Weeks-Levy, C., 2008, Protective efficacy of a recombinant subunit West Nile virus vaccine in domestic geese (Anser anser): Vaccine, v. 26, no. 42, pp. 5,338-5,344, doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2008.08.011.

Kingsbury, J.A., Delzer, G.C., and Hamilton, P.A., 2008, Man-made organic compounds in source water of nine community water systems that withdraw from streams, 2002–05: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2008–3094, 6 p.

Kingsbury, J.A., Delzer, G.C., and Hopple, J.A., 2008, Anthropogenic organic compounds in source water of nine community water systems that withdraw from streams, 2002–05: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5208, 66 p.

Koehler, A.V., Pearce, J.M., Flint, P.L., Franson, J.C., and Ip, H.S., 2008, Genetic evidence of intercontinental movement of avian influenza in a migratory bird--The northern pintail (Anas acuta): Molecular Ecology, v. 17, no. 21, p. 4754-4762, doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2008.03953.x.

Landon, M.K., Clark, B.R., McMahon, P.B., McGuire, V.L., and Turco, M.J., 2008, Hydrogeology, chemical-characteristics, and transport processes in the zone of contribution of a public-supply well in York, Nebraska: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5050, 149 p.

Loftin, K.A., Meyer, M.T., Rubio, F., Kamp, L., Humphries, E., and Whereat, E., 2008, Comparison of two cell lysis procedures for recovery of microcystins in water samples from Silver Lake in Dover, Delaware, with microcystin producing cyanobacterial accumulations: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2008-1341, 9 p.

Marsh, C., Schmitz, E., and Wynholds, L., 2008, Desktop diagnosis---A user's guide to the NBII Wildlife Disease Information Node: The Wildlife Professional, v. 2, no. 2, pp. 41-43.

McMahon, P.B., Burow, K.R., Kauffman, L.J., Eberts, S.M., Böhlke, J.K., and Gurdak, J.J., 2008, Simulated response of water quality in public-supply wells to land-use change: Water Resources Research, v. 44, p. 1-16, W00A06, doi:10.1029/2007WR006731.

Mendez, G.O., Foreman, W.T., Morita, A., and Majewski, M.S., 2008, Water- and air-quality monitoring of Sweetwater Reservoir Watershed, San Diego County, California--Phase one results continued, 2001-2003: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 347, 157 p.

Rabinowitz, P. M., Odofin, L., and Dein, J., 2008, From "us vs. them" to "shared risk"--Can animals help link environmental factors to human health?: EcoHealth, v. 5, no. 2, pp. 224-229.

Renken, R.A., Cunningham, K.J., Shapiro, A.M., Harvey, R.W., Zygnerski, M.R., Metge, D.W., and Wacker, M.A., 2008, Pathogen and chemical transport in the karst limestone of the Biscayne aquifer--1. Revised conceptualization of groundwater flow: Water Resources Research, v. 44, W08429, doi:10.1029/2007WR006058.

Rocke, T., 2008, Protecting black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs against sylvatic plague: USGS Fact Sheet 2008-3087, 2 p.

Rocke, T.E., Smith, S.R., Marinari, P., Kreeger, J., Enama, J.T., and Powell, B.S., 2008, Vaccination with F1-V fusion protein protects black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) against plague upon oral challenge with Yersinia pestis: Journal of Wildlife Diseases, v. 44, no. 1, pp. 1-7.

Rocke, T.E., Smith, S.R., Stinchcomb, D.T., and Osorio, J.E., 2008, Immunization of black-tailed prairie dog against plague through consumption of vaccine-laden baits: Journal of Wildlife Diseases, v. 44, no. 4, pp. 930-937.

Samish, M., Ginsberg, H., and Glazer, I., 2008, Anti-tick biological control agents--Assessment and future perspectives, in Bowman, A.S., and Nuttall, P., eds., Ticks--Biology, Disease and Control: Cambridge University Press, pp. 447-469.

Shapiro, A.M., Renken, R.A., Harvey, R.W., Zygnerski, M.R., and Metge, D.W., 2008, Pathogen and chemical transport in the karst limestone of the Biscayne aquifer--2. Chemical retention from diffusion and slow advection: Water Resources Research, v. 44, W08430, doi:10.1029/2007WR006059.

Sovada, M.A., Pietz, P.J., Converse, K.A., Tommy King, D., Hofmeister, E.K., Scherr, P., and Ip, H.S., 2008, Impact of West Nile virus and other mortality factors on American white pelicans at breeding colonies in the northern plains of North America: Biological Conservation, v. 141, no. 4, p. 1021-1031, doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2008.01.019.

Spackman, E., Ip, H.S., Suarez, D.L., Slemons, R.D., and Stallknecht, D.E., 2008, Analytical validation of a real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test for Pan-American lineage H7 subtype Avian influenza viruses: Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, v. 20, no. 5, p. 612-616.

Wolf, R.E., Morman, S.A., and Plumlee, G.S., 2008, Speciation methods used to assess potential health effects of toxic metals in environmental materials: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2008-1350, 35 p.

Compiled and Edited by David W. Morganwalp


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