Emerging Contaminants

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Detailed Description

Today on the USGS CoreCast we explore what impact emerging contaminants have on the health and development of aquatic wildlife. We traveled to the Pacific Northwest to talk with a multidisciplinary research team of USGS scientists about an ongoing study that characterizes the contaminants and habitats for a number of aquatic species along the lower Columbia River.


Team: Edwin Elias, Guy Gelfenbaum

Relevance: Streamflow modeling and point-source tracer modeling along the lower Columbia River. Tool for modeling contaminant and sediment transport. The model runs were done as scenarios, representing a certain set of conditions. They weren't run to represent a particular time period.

Method: Delft3D

Episode Number: 161

Date Taken:

Length: 00:09:31

Location Taken: Portland, OR, US


[Intro Music begins]

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Good or bad, you know

an issue has infiltrated the public consciousness

when it has been satired in the Sunday paper.

However, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and pollutants

in our rivers are no laughing matter.

Hello and welcome.

I'm Steven Sobieszczyk.

In today's episode of the USGS CoreCast we're

exploring what impact water pollution has

on the health and the development of aquatic


Since the 1990s there have been numerous studies

around the country that have been investigating

how a wide range of chemical compounds, industrial

pollutants, and human by-products have made

it into our Nation's waterways.

Traditionally, most people were not overly

concerned about this because the old mantra

used to be "dilution is the solution to pollution"

However, this is far from true.

In fact, recent studies have shown a much

starker reality.

After the contaminants make it into the rivers

and streams, tests now show that there are

measurable quantities of these contaminants

within the water, itself, as well as in the

under-water sediments, the nearby aquatic

insects, migratory fish that were eating these

insects, and even predatory wildlife that

consume all these different organisms.

In the last few years the USGS has increased

its efforts to monitor these emerging contaminants

in lakes and rivers around the United States,

including the Potomac, Mississippi, Colorado,

and Columbia Rivers.

To explore, in more detail, one example of

what impact these contaminants are having

in our nearby streams, we traveled to the

Pacific Northwest to talk with a team of USGS

scientists about an ongoing study that characterizes

the contaminants and habitats for a number

of aquatic species along the lower Columbia


This contaminant and habitat study, or ConHab

for short, is a multidisciplinary research

project composed of 12 USGS scientists from

7 different states, including Oregon, Washington,

California, Colorado, Missouri, Texas, and


Using their unique expertise in chemistry,

biology, geology, and hydrology, these researchers

have been exploring emerging contaminants,

such as flame-retardants, pharmaceuticals,

personal care products, and industrial chemicals

in the Columbia River.

[Elena Nilsen] What we refer to as emerging

contaminants can mean many different kinds

of chemicals.

To understand what these chemicals are we

just need to think about our urban lifestyle.

And we know that we use products everyday

that have chemicals in them, and that they

end up going through wastewater treatment

plants because plants weren't designed to

take these chemicals out.

And they eventually end up in the rivers.

Similarly, industrial processes that have

their own treatment process probably don’t

remove all these chemicals.

So there are various ways that these chemicals

get into the environment, but we know they

are getting into the environment and we're

concerned about the effects they might be

having on organisms that live in the Columbia


[Steven Sobieszczyk] In order to effectively

assess the impact of chemical pollutants in

an environmental setting there must be a clear

objective for the investigation.

The approach used by investigators in this

study focused on 3 sites that represented

a gradation of contamination, with a focus

on how this contamination affected a number

of species within a predefined food web.</p>

[Elena Nilsen] So at the ConHab study sites,

we're sampling several levels of the food

web to try and answer this question of "are

the chemicals there and are they moving from

one organism to another?"

We're using passive samplers to try to tell

us what the chemical concentrations are in

the water; we're collecting sediments; we're

collecting invertebrate biomass, or the bugs

that live on the bottom of the river; we're

collecting largescale suckers as a resident

fish; and we collecting osprey eggs, a bird

of prey that eats the largescale sucker.

[Jennifer Morace] So many of the newer emerging

compounds we don't have great toxicity information

for, so it's hard for us to know at "x" concentration

this will happen to a biode or to a fish.

So that wass part of why we decided to do

a foodweb study to try and look at if we're

seeing these concentrations in the river,

what does this mean for the fish?

Can we tell if with the biomarkers....that

helps us tell if there are effects we're seeing

in the fish and trying to tie those back to

the contaminant concentrations.

Then, likewise, trying to see what effects

it might be having on the osprey and other

portions of the foodweb.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] With the ConHab study

finishing up, results demonstrating how emerging

contaminants impact aquatic wildlife prove

very interesting.

[Elena Nilsen] As far as the concentrations

of contaminants in the fish at the three sites,

we looked also not just at whole fish, but

we looked at five different tissues.

We looked at brains, gonads, stomachs, fillets,

and livers.

And the concentrations in the livers were

higher at all the sites than the other tissues

that we looked at.

This makes sense if you think of the liver

as filtering out the toxins of the fish's


Preliminary results do indicate that we're

seeing a difference in some of the biomarkers

between the sites, as well.

For instance, the gonadal somatic index, or

the ratio of gonad size to the mass of the


And some of the sperm viability and motility

studies are showing lower sperm motility and

viability at the sites with higher concentrations

of contaminants.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Since most of the data

for this project was collected at three sites,

finding a way to project, or extrapolate,

this data across the length of the Columbia

River was nearly as important as the data

collection, itself.

[Elena Nilsen] As part of the project we have

done some sediment transport modeling.

This is an important part of the project because

our thought is that a lot of these emerging

contaminants are going to be associated with

suspended sediments in the river.

You can think of them as being very sticky.

So they stick to the sediments and move throughout

the systems on the sediments.

So, by modeling the transport of the sediments

we get an idea of the distribution of these

contaminants throughout the larger system.

[Animation 1 - Streamflow]

[Elena Nilsen] In this video we can see the

flow changing direction and changing velocity,

with the higher velocities in red and lower

in blue.

This changes with tidal cycle.

The higher velocities, obviously, will transport

the heavier sediment and transport more sediment,


In the lower velocities is where we expect

some of the sediment to start falling out

and be distributed on the bed.

[Animation 2 - Point-Source Tracer]

[Elena Nilsen] So in this video we're showing

the foodweb area that's near the urbanized

corridor near Portland, where the Willamette

River comes in.

What this is is showing a tracer input, it's

approximating if a contaminant were introduced

into the river how the dispersal of the contaminant,

with fine-grained sediments would be different

at those different locations given the different

flow forcing, tidal influence versus the higher


In the top panel, we're showing base flow,

highlighting the tidal influence, and in the

lower panel we're showing the experimented

high flow.

[Elena Nilsen] So some of these results are

similar to what we're seeing in some of the

other studies done in, for instance, Lake

Mead or Potomac.

What's different is in some of those studies

we're seeing higher concentrations and maybe

more obvious biological changes in the fish,

but what's different here is we're trying

to piece together how the fish fit into the

foodweb as a whole.

[Jennifer Morace] If we could combine these

types of foodweb studies with source identification

then we could try to tie contaminants to effects.

And then also look for where the sources of

these contaminants are to work toward reduction

to try and improve conditions in the ecosystem.

Because the Columbia River is a beautiful

river, the Pacific Northwest is a great place,

it's very culturally important and we want

to preserve that.

And sometimes when people look at the river

now and the great setting that we have it's

hard for them to image that there are problems

in this ecosystem.

But we know there are hints at some of these

problems that may be arising and we want to

stop that before we get to that type of condition

that leads us to where....some of the issues

that like Chesapeake Bay or Lake Mead are

trying to deal with.

We want to try and preserve our way of life


[Steven Sobieszczyk] If you want to learn

more about the ConHab project or emerging

contaminants, as a whole, check out the links

in our show transcripts, which you can find

at the CoreCast website at http://www.usgs.gov/corecast/.

If you want to see what else is going on in

the Pacific Northwest, you can also check

out the local podcast, the USGS Oregon Science

Podcast at http://or.water.usgs.gov/podcasts/

or http://or.usgs.gov/.

If you want to follow USGS daily, you can

also go to our USGS social media website at


There you can follow the USGS on Facebook,

Twitter, YouTube, and even Flickr.

Until next time.

I'm Steven Sobieszczyk.

[Outro Music begins]

This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological

Survey, Department of the Interior.

[Outro Music ends]</strong>