Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

“Whatcha gonna do when they come for you”-thinks this week’s EarthWord...

EarthWords is an on-going series in which we shed some light on the complicated, often difficult-to-pronounce language of science. Think of us as your terminology tour-guides, and meet us back here every week for a new word!

A USGS scientist samples a stream in Utah, looking for methane contamination. Credit: USGS.

The EarthWord: Fugitive


  • Although it’s unlikely to call the Law down upon it, fugitive in the scientific sense is pretty close to the legal sense--it means something that has escaped or migrated outside of where it was meant to be.

  • It’s most often applied to chemicals that escape a container of some kind.


  • Fugitive comes from the Latin fugitivus, which meant “runaway” or “missing.”

Use/Significance in the Earth Science Community:

  • Fugitive contaminants are a serious issue in the world of toxicology and environmental health science. Chemical spills from pipelines or other transportation methods, catchment ponds, wells, or other types of infrastructure are a major pathway for contaminants to enter the environment.


Next EarthWord: Although it sounds like a Batman punch, this #EarthWord is closer to the Bat than you’d think...

Hungry for some science, but you don’t have time for a full-course research plate? Then check out USGS Science Snippets, our snack-sized science series that focuses on the fun, weird, and fascinating stories of USGS science.