Assessing contaminant exposure and effects at Areas of Concern across the Great Lakes

Science Center Objects

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement designated 31 Areas of Concern (AOCs) across the Great Lakes.  The AOCs are geographical areas where significant beneficial use impairment has occurred as a result of human activities.  A beneficial use impairment (BUI) relates to a change in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause any of the 14 conditions outlined in Annex 1.a of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  

UMESC personnel are providing information to assist States and EPA to assess some of the BUIs principally the ”Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems” BUI.  Scientists are using 2 basic approaches   1) collect reproductive data in the field and compared with normal reproductive rates in similar, but non-AOC, areas; and 2) compared tissue concentrations to background and known reproductive effect levels from both field and laboratory studies.    Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are a useful in this context because there are now a wealth of exposure and effects data for a number of chemicals classes; they can  be attracted to nest boxes placed in specific areas of interest, even to highly industrial landscapes where few other birds will nest; they feed on aquatic insects that reside in the contaminated sediments; and they can be consistently sampled at all AOCs, something that has been lacking for vertebrates to date.   Nest boxes are placed at sites of interest, and then beginning in mid-May each year visited weekly, or more often when needed, to document nesting activity and to collect samples.  Samples for chemical analyses and physiological responses are collected at the appropriate time.  Data have been collected at over 70 sites across the Great Lakes and the information collected has been reported in 9 peer-reviewed publications to date.

Assessing contaminant exposure and effects at Areas of Concern across the Great Lakes

Assessing contaminant exposure and effects at Areas of Concern across the Great Lakes

(Credit: Chris Custer, UMESC. Public domain.)