Environmental Quality and Contaminants

Floodwaters and inundation in urban environments have the potential to introduce and expose coastal and aquatic environments to chemical and microbial contaminants. Potential contaminant sources include debris, combined sewer overflows and inundated infrastructure such as gas station, landfills, chemical storage facilities, hazardous waste sites and saltwater intrusion. USGS scientists measure, monitor and characterize the persisting risk of exposure to both human and ecological systems in the built environment as well as in natural areas. Research includes characterizing these storm-released contaminants and water-quality changes as well as understanding how these contaminants accumulate in sediments or what conditions cause them to persist, move and further impact ecosystem health. View Fact Sheet


well network

Science Support for Tribes

Research on Human- and Ecological-Health Concerns Related to Transport and Persistence of Contaminants on Shinnecock Tribal Lands.

screen shot of resiliency flow chart

SCoRR: Understanding Hazards from Sediment-Bound Environmental Health Stressors 

Storm-derived coastal disturbances such as Hurricane Sandy can mobilize sediment-bound toxic contaminants, pathogens, and viruses which could adversely impact the health and resilience of coastal communities and ecosystems. As part of the response to Hurricane Sandy, USGS developed the Sediment-bound Contaminant Resiliency and Response (SCoRR) strategy to track the sources and movement of sediment-bound contaminants and provide a means to measure coastal resilience.

USGS personnel collect a water-quality sample on the Missouri River.

Water-Quality Sampling

In response to Hurricane Sandy, the national water-quality programs of the USGS are coordinating and conducting water-quality sampling as part of cooperative State-wide ambient monitoring programs and the Chesapeake Bay Program, Delaware River Basin Commission, and state and local hurricane response efforts. By coordinating water-quality sampling among different monitoring programs, the USGS is able to more efficiently obtain high-flow samples across river basins, and explore ways to maximize opportunities during extreme-flow events. The frequency and location of water sampling varies according to local conditions and depends on the needs and concerns of partnering agencies and local communities.

Scientists measuring and testing a fish for contaminants.

Characterizing Risk from Persistent Exposure to Storm-Released Contaminants

While the built environment is a major source of storm-released contaminants, questions remain as to the long-term environmental quality impacts on both natural and built environments. Are there risks of increased human and ecological exposures to contaminants at beaches and recreational areas, bays and marshes? Do significant debris accumulations affect health in residential areas? USGS scientists with expertise in human and ecosystem health are looking at contaminant exposure risks within the built environment as well as coastal and aquatic environments. By identifying and measuring these risks, coastal managers and responders can inform and prioritize actions that reduce and eliminate contaminant risks posed to humans, fish and wildlife in coastal regions.

Data and Tools

A USGS scientist collects a water sample for analysis of mineral particles known as colloids. Toxic metals (such as copper in excess) bind to the particles, which are then ingested by aquatic animals.

Environmental Health Toxic Substances

The Toxic Substances Hydrology Program provides objective scientific information on environmental contamination to improve characterization and management of contaminated sites, to protect human and environmental health, and to reduce potential future contamination problems.

 A scientists taking soil samples in the sand to test for bacteria and other contaminants.

Emerging Contaminants

Research is documenting with increasing frequency that many chemical and microbial constituents that have not historically been considered as contaminants are present in the environment on a global scale. These “emerging contaminants” are commonly derived from municipal, agricultural, and industrial wastewater sources and pathways. These newly recognized contaminants represent a shift in traditional thinking as many are produced industrially yet are dispersed to the environment from domestic, commercial, and industrial uses.

 Image of state-of-the-art laboratory equipment and technologies that the scientists use to test for traces of emerging contaminants in water, sediment, and animal tissue.

Methods Development

The need to understand the processes controlling emerging contaminant sources, transport and fate in the environment, and ecologic and human health effects has increased the need to study environmental occurrence down to trace levels. Methods are being developed to enhance our capabilities for measuring emerging chemical and microbial contaminants and their associated degradation products in the environment. Continual improvements in analytical equipment and capabilities bring looking for virtually any contaminant at lower and lower levels within the realm of possibility.

Diagram showing basic understanding of the biologic, chemical, and hydrologic processes that affect partitioning into various environmental media (e.g. water, sediment and tissue) and chemical and microbial transformation. These processes can have a significant effect on the potential toxicity of a contaminant.

Transport and Fate

Research provides a basic understanding of the biologic, chemical, and hydrologic processes that affect partitioning into various environmental media (e.g. water, sediment and tissue) and chemical and microbial transformation. These processes can have a significant effect on the potential toxicity of a contaminant.

 Image of frog half in the water and half out of the water leaning on blades of green grass.

Ecological Effects

For most emerging contaminants, there is currently little information regarding their potential toxicological significance in ecosystems -- particularly effects from long-term, low-level environmental exposures.


Environmental Quality and Contaminants Team Lead

Mike Focazio