Fiscal Year 2018 USGS Environmental Health Mission Area Accomplishments

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In Fiscal Year 2018 our two integrated programs – Contaminant Biology and Toxic Substances Hydrology Programs – provided essential information to understand the risks of environmental contaminants and pathogens.

"Everything we do is designed to safeguard the Nation's health, economy, and resources."


USGS Science to Understand Contaminants and Pathogens in the Environment

Scientists in the Environmental Health Mission Area (EHMA) work together, with other USGS Mission Areas, and with many external collaborators to study contaminants and pathogens in the environment and provide the science to help stakeholders protect that most precious resource—health. This diagram depicts how these experts and their capabilities are combined to fill gaps in our understanding of contaminants and pathogens in the environment. Together the Toxic Substances Hydrology and Contaminant Biology Programs provide the science to help stakeholders protect our most precious resource—health.

(Credit: David W. Morganwalp, Environmental Health Mission Area. Public domain.)

Two longstanding, and now integrated programs in the Environmental Health Mission Area (EHMA)—Contaminant Biology (CBP) and Toxic Substances Hydrology (TSHP)—lead US Geological Survey (USGS) science in providing information essential to understand hazards that environmental contaminants and pathogens may pose to the health of humans. This science informs mitigation strategies and mechanisms that control sources, movement, exposure, and toxicological effects of contaminants.

The Programs’ integrated teams work together to provide answers to the following questions about contaminants and pathogens:

  • Where do they come from?
  • What happens to them once they enter the environment?
  • Does their toxicity decrease or increase?
  • How do humans, pets, livestock, fish, and wildlife come into contact with them?
  • At what levels do they begin to pose a health risk?
  • What are their actual health effects?

Scientists funded by the integrated programs work with a broad range of public health, animal health, natural resource, defense, and emergency response partners and stakeholders from across Federal and state agencies, Tribal entities, the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations to provide non-regulatory, non-advocacy science to support sound decision making.

Our Federal partners include other Department of the Interior agencies (National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation), Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Defense(DOD), US Department of Agriculture (USDA), US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Institutes for Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Corps of Engineers(COE).

Program Accomplishments During 2018

US Map of Environmental Health Mission Area funded locations

Our unique interdisciplinary teams comprised of over 200 USGS hydrologists, geologists, chemists, toxicologists and biologists funded by the integrated Contaminant Biology and Toxic Substances Hydrology Programs are distributed in Centers across the United States.

(Credit: Suzanne C. Roberts, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

The realignment of the CBP and TSHP toward common business models and integrated science activities, which was started in 2017, was successfully completed in 2018. The realignment involved the development of 11 topic-focused integrated science teams with 19 supporting laboratory and capability teams comprised of scientists from over 40 different Science Centers and most USGS Mission areas.

The realignment into integrated teams provided the USGS with the ability to address the full range of questions related to contaminant and pathogen sources, environmental transport, exposure/transmission pathways, uptake, biological effects, and human health implications. In addition to enhancing the understanding of the actual rather than perceived effects of contaminants and pathogens in the environment, these activities also inform strategies to minimize contaminant exposure.

The realignment provides the USGS with increased efficiency and leveraging of resources to study contaminants, which results in tangible benefits to stakeholders within and outside the Department of Interior who have relied on USGS environmental health science for decades. As part of the realignment, outreach for the integrated Programs also was streamlined and enhanced to include concise feature articles that highlight scientific products, and a new format for its GeoHEALTH–USGS Newsletter, which has been published continuously since 2006 and reports concisely on environmental health related topics across the Bureau to over 1700 subscribers.

Science Accomplishments During FY2018—Overview

During FY18, the newly integrated science teams, and laboratory- capability teams continued their record of high productivity, through collection and interpretation of new data, development of tools, and completion of over 250 peer-reviewed papers that help safeguard the health of humans and other biota in the Nation.

The science during FY18 was focused on National environmental health priorities including research on: the environmental occurrence, transport, exposure pathways, and toxicity of algal toxins in stream, lake, and wetland ecosystems; development of remote sensing tools to enhance USGS capabilities in algal toxin event warnings; measurement of a broad suite of contaminants and pathogens in drinking water supplies; identification of the sources, transport, exposure, and health effects of chemical contaminants (e.g. mercury, legacy chemicals, poly - and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)), other hormonally and biologically active compounds (e.g. hormones, pesticides and pharmaceuticals), microbial contaminants (e.g. Bacillus anthracis, the soil bacterium that is the etiological agent of anthrax) and other contaminants (e.g. prions associated with chronic wasting disease and antibiotic resistance genes). Contaminant exposure, bioaccumulation, and effects were studied in a wide variety of species including microbial communities, fish (bass, trout, catfish, and carp), birds (osprey, waterfowl, tree swallows, and hummingbirds) and mammals like elephant seals and elk.

Three photos showing USGS environmental health science

(A) Winter time water quality sampling, Laura E. Hubbard, USGS, (B) Osprey nestling in the Delaware Estuary, Rebecca S. Lazarus, USGS, (C) A microbiologist prepares a reaction in a Biological Safety Cabinet, Heather Johnson - Contact: Carrie E. Givens, USGS.

(Credit: David W. Morganwalp, Environmental Health Mission Area. Public domain.)

To accomplish this research, the integrated teams also completed the development or improvement of several new linked analytical chemistry and toxicological methods to improve accuracy and precision, and to align method detection limits with toxicological endpoints. These include refining mercury isotope analysis and mercury source characterization methods, improved methods for bioassays to measure estrogenicity in the environment and pathogens in drinking water, and collaborative development of methods for PFAS compounds.

Selected Science Accomplishments During 2018

Science to Understand when Algal Toxins Pose a Hazard

Every year, in many places across the nation, access to water resources for recreation and drinking is limited or prohibited due to the potential for toxicity from seasonal algal blooms. Not all algal blooms contain toxins or have toxin levels high enough to cause effects. Yet, in many cases, decisions meant to protect animal and human health by restricting access to water resources for drinking water and recreation, are made based upon an inadequate understanding of the presence, drivers, and effects of algal toxins.

Three photo of algal toxin research

(Credit: David W. Morganwalp, Environmental Health Mission Area. Public domain.)

In FY 2018, EHMA continued its leadership role in harmful algal bloom/toxin studies. Our interdisciplinary team of microbiologists, chemists, hydrologists, and economists continued to produce products and develop tools and techniques to measure and predict the occurrence of algal toxins, assess the importance of human or environmental drivers affecting algal toxin production, and understand the actual as opposed to perceived threats associated with algal blooms—critical information for resource management targeted to safeguard human and animal health and address vulnerabilities of our water resources.

All of this is information is leading the team one step closer to understanding what causes cyanobacteria to produce cyanotoxins, how to meaningfully predict blooms, and the actual versus perceived health threats posed by algal toxins. During fiscal year 2018, Congress increased the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program’s budget to enhance the capabilities of our Algal Toxins Laboratory in Lawrence, Kansas, and substantially increase the scope of our work on algal toxin science needed to safeguard human and animal health.

During FY2018, the EHMA Algal Toxin Team and its internal and external partners:

  • Continued refinement of efficient remote sensing tools for more rapid detection and anticipation of algal blooms associated toxins, working with our partners at NOAA, EPA, and NASA
  • Utilized advanced metagenomics tools to identify if cyanobacteria have the potential to synthesize toxins and determine factors driving toxin production
  • Completed tandem field and laboratory studies that increased our understanding of how the toxins in an algal bloom changed as it was transported from freshwater to brackish water in the Okeechobee Waterway
  • Refined analytical capability to identify toxins in water and other media
  • Continued to define the occurrence of algal toxins in the Nation's water resources

Science to Safeguard Drinking Water

Approximately 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in areas where public water and wastewater systems are monitored and made safe under state and federal regulations. The remainder of the population depends on self-monitored and maintained private-well and septic systems. Aging infrastructure, unsafe legacy materials in water distribution systems (such as lead water supply pipes), growing dependence on water reuse to meet population-driven water demands, and other factors create a potential for human exposures to increasingly complex and largely unregulated chemical and microbiological contaminant mixtures in drinking water.

During 2018, EHMA scientists collaborated with public utilities, private landowners, academia, non-government organizations, and local to Federal public health and regulatory agencies to study the entire pathway of environmental contaminants and pathogens —from sources of natural or untreated waters, through various pathways including public treatment and conveyance infrastructure, to drinking water from the tap. For the first time this research has brought together the expertise of the USGS in the transport, fate, and analysis of contaminants with the expertise of public health agencies to help understand actual exposures and how such exposures may influence health.

During FY 2018, our integrated science team made significant advances in understanding the occurrence of contaminants in our Nation’s tap water:

  • EHMA, NIH, and CDC scientists along with other public health experts began a collaborative effort through the USGS Powell Center to determine the feasibility of linking existing USGS arsenic data and models with existing CDC health outcome data (NHANES) to determine the feasibility of modelling health effects from human exposure to arsenic.
  • EHMA scientists along with the Colorado School of Mines and public health experts from the NIH and EPA provided data for over 500 chemical and microbial contaminants in tap waters from homes and business throughout the Nation as part of a pilot study to understand contaminant occurrence in tap water, which was highlighted by the American Chemical Society.
  • EHMA scientists completed a study in collaboration with public health experts (NIH; EPA; University of Chicago School of Public Health; City of Chicago, Department of Water Management; City of East Chicago, Utilities Department; Indiana Department of Environmental Management; and Illinois EPA) to understand possible connections between chemical and microbial content of tap water and human health outcomes.
  • EHMA and University of Iowa scientists measured neonicotinoid (insecticides used in urban and agricultural applications) occurrence in finished tap water with and without granulated activated carbon filtration—the resulting paper received an award for one of the best papers in ES&T Letters in 2017.
  • EHMA scientists evaluated modeling tools that use existing landscape, hydrologic, and source information to estimate the likelihood of contaminants from upstream wastewater discharges to enter drinking water facility intake.
  • EHMA funded scientists produced a paper that describes measurement and statistical techniques to overcome limitations to viral detection in water to provide a more accurate viral pathogen-tracking tool for drinking water.
  • EHMA scientists participated in a workgroup to prepare a National Science and Technology Council coordinated interagency plan on how to identify and address current research gaps in understanding the health effects of low levels of emerging contaminants in the Nation’s drinking water.

Contaminant Pathways to Wildlife

Strip of wildlife photos from the USGS

Exposure to contaminants or pathogens alone does not necessarily result in adverse health outcomes in animals or humans. There are numerous ecological and physiological pathways and processes that can alter both exposure and toxicity of contaminants and pathogens. EHMA integrated science teams study the sources and transport of contaminants through watersheds to the point of exposure for the purpose of understanding the effects, if any, of wildlife exposures to contaminants and potential mitigation strategies. The contaminants studied originate from natural and anthropogenic sources including mercury, pesticides used in agricultural and urban settings, legacy contaminants, poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, trace elements liberated during resource extraction, hydrocarbons resulting from spills, and biologically active compounds such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals, to name a few.

During FY18 our integrated science teams made important scientific advances in understanding the sources, pathways, and wildlife exposure to contaminants in the environment.

  • Northern hemisphere permafrost soils were found to have the largest reservoir of mercury on the planet—storing nearly twice as much mercury as all other soils, the ocean, and the atmosphere combined.
  • EHMA-funded scientists documented tree swallow exposure to contaminants, physiological responses, and reproductive success in the Great Lakes region to understand if there are health threats to tree swallows from contaminant exposure, and to provide resource managers with information needed to inform restoration efforts.
  • The occurrence of legacy contaminants, such as DDT, and pharmaceuticals in ospreys and their food chain were investigated in two of our Nation’s largest estuaries—Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay—that serve as essential habitat for fish and bird populations important for hunting and other recreational activities.
  • EHMA funded scientists studied adult frog exposure to pesticides in aquatic and terrestrial habitats using a novel combination of radio telemetry and passive sampling techniques to better understand factors affecting frog health and survival in agricultural landscapes.
  • EHMA-funded scientists interpreted existing scientific data sets to clarify factors that influence mercury occurrence, exposure, and effects, facilitating better predictions of human and wildlife health risks from exposures to environmental mercury.
  • EHMA-funded scientists developed and applied advanced, increasingly non-lethal techniques to understand animal (fish, bird, and mammal) exposures to mercury in Alaska and California and the nature of health effects associated with such exposures.
  • EHMA-funded scientists, citizen scientists, and collaborators from the University of Maine and the NPS collected and measured mercury in dragonflies as part of the Dragonfly Mercury Project at more than 100 national parks across the country. This work with dragonflies increases our understanding of potential mercury exposures relevant to Park visitors.
  • EHMA-funded scientists measured mercury concentrations in elephant seals during normal foraging and fasting periods and reported that, regardless of exposure, an animal's contaminant concentration can be markedly influenced by their annual life-history events.
  • EHMA-funded scientists measured the seasonal patterns of neonicotinoids in rivers feeding the Great Lakes to help the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other stakeholders better understand aquatic organism exposure to neonicotinoids.

Poly - and Perfluoroalkyl Substances in the Environment

USGS scientist collecting groundwater samples

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist collecting groundwater samples for analysis of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) from a multiport monitoring well downgradient from a former fire-training area on western Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

(Credit: Denis R. LeBlanc, U.S. Geological Survey, New England Water Science Center. Public domain.)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively called PFAS, are synthetic chemicals commonly used for consumer and industrial applications such as fire-retardant coatings on carpeting and clothing, linings of fast food boxes, and fire-fighting foams. PFAS are not readily biodegradable and are highly water soluble, indicating that transport away from sources is nearly inevitable. Given their ubiquitous use, minimal degradation in the environment, and ease of transport, PFAS are commonly present in the environment. However, a clear understanding of the potential exposure pathways and health effects to fish, wildlife, and humans for low levels of these compounds in the environment and in drinking water is a key science gap.

During 2018, EHMA funded scientists made significant progress to understand PFAS occurrence and transport in the environment including:

  • EHMA scientists in collaboration with EPA measured PFAS in source and treated drinking water at 25 drinking water facilities across the Nation and reported that PFAS were detected in all source water and public water supply samples collected.
  • EHMA scientists are studying the sources and transport of PFAS  through watersheds to the point of exposure in streams and drinking water sources near Cape Cod Massachusetts.
  • EHMA scientists are developing sensitive analytical methods for PFAS in collaboration with the National Water Quality Laboratory and the Harvard University.
  • EHMA scientists are studying PFAS levels in small-mammal tissues near a mixed hazardous waste disposal area at the USGS Armargosa Desert Research Site in Nevada to determine potential exposure routes.

Long-term Research to Inform Mitigation Strategies: Natural Attenuation of Crude Oil Spills

Scientist Uses a Syringe to Withdraw Water from a Core

To help understand the geochemical conditions that control arsenic mobilization in the subsurface a USGS scientist uses a syringe to withdraw water from a core for analysis. The core sample was collected using the "freezing drive shoe" technology developed by USGS scientists. The freezing drive shoe enables nearly complete core recovery from saturated, sandy aquifers. The core is shrouded in aluminum foil to prevent oxidation.

(Credit: Jeanne B. Jaeschke, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

The 2018 accomplishments of the EHMA provide a wealth of insight, and some of these achievements were based on long-term research on topics that may have taken decades to fully understand and have increased the understanding of how hazardous chemicals, introduced at earth’s surface, are transported in subsurface soils, sediments and groundwater. For example, EHMA scientists in cooperation with academia, local public health agencies, and industry studied the natural attenuation of a crude oil spill at the National Crude Oil Spill Fate and Natural Attenuation Research Site near Bemidji, Minnesota, for more than 30 years. Understanding the transformations and transport of the complex mixtures introduced to groundwater is essential to understanding mitigation strategies to reduce contaminant exposure.

During FY 2018, EHMA funded scientists reported that there has been significant reduction in oil mass and degradation of total measured hydrocarbons in the oil during the past 30-plus years, but that some breakdown components such as benzene and naphthalenes, could remain for decades. This long-term research indicates that at sites where natural attenuation is the only remedial technique used, oil breakdown products, some of which are potentially toxic, can remain in groundwater for decades under conditions similar to those measured at the Bemidji field sites.

Method and Tool Development

One of EHMA’s key strengths is analytical methods development, and the EHMA supports a nationally connected network of laboratories with specialized capabilities in analytical chemistry, geography, geochemistry, geophysics, toxicology, organism disease, genetics, and microbiology. Scientists develop state-of-the-art laboratory and field methods that can be applied across the nation with comparable results. Our analytical facilities also forge beneficial collaborations on methods development with the USGS National Water Quality Laboratory Methods Development team and with many external stakeholders.

Two photo circles - First - Pathologist examines a seabird - Second - Scientist in laboratory

During FY 2018, EHMA continued its leadership role with the development or enhancement of several methods to improve accuracy and precision and to align method detection limits with toxicological endpoints. For example, the state-of-the-art mercury laboratory in Middleton, Wisconsin continued its work to refine mercury isotope analysis and source characterization methods. Our laboratory in Sacramento, California developed a new method for analysis of nitrapyrin, a herbicide safener and our laboratory in Lawrence Kansas developed a new method for the analysis of polyoxyethylene tallow amine, a surfactant of emerging interest. Methods to explore antibiotic resistance were developed in our Bacteriological Research Laboratory in Lansing, Michigan, and improved methods for bioassays to measure estrogenicity were developed in the Center for Environmental Research in Columbia, Missouri. Development of methods for perfluorinated compounds were initiated in collaboration with the National Water Quality Laboratory in Denver, Colorado. Our Environmental and Public Health Laboratory in St Petersburg, Florida developed improved collection and analyses methods and a new online tool to visualize the occurrence of Bacillus anthracis (the soil bacterium that is the etiological agent of anthrax) in context with soil geochemical parameters.

Colonies of the Bacteria Bacillus Globigii on a Petri Dish

Scientists optimized existing methods to collect and identify microorganisms including Bacillus anthracis, a pathogenic microorganism, in 4,800 soil samples across the United States, and developed a geographic information system (GIS)-based application to visualize microorganism occurrence throughout the United States. The photo shows Bacillus globigii colony forming units recovered from a seeded soil sample growing on a petri dish containing tryptic soy agar.

(Credit: Dale W. Griffin, St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. Public domain.)

The USGS Environmental Health Mission Area’s integrated Programs — the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program and the Contaminant Biology Program — will build upon FY18 accomplishments to continue its non-regulatory, non-advocacy science used by stakeholders to safeguard the health of humans and wildlife. More information on the Environmental Health Mission Area’s 2019 fiscal year priorities address the Department of Interior, USGS, and Mission Area priorities is available.