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Complex mixtures of dissolved pesticides show potential aquatic toxicity in a synoptic study of Midwestern U.S. streams

November 13, 2017

Aquatic organisms in streams are exposed to pesticide mixtures that vary in composition over time in response to changes in flow conditions, pesticide inputs to the stream, and pesticide fate and degradation within the stream. To characterize mixtures of dissolved-phase pesticides and degradates in Midwestern streams, a synoptic study was conducted at 100 streams during May–August 2013. In weekly water samples, 94 pesticides and 89 degradates were detected, with a median of 25 compounds detected per sample and 54 detected per site. In a screening-level assessment using aquatic-life benchmarks and the Pesticide Toxicity Index (PTI), potential effects on fish were unlikely in most streams. For invertebrates, potential chronic toxicity was predicted in 53% of streams, punctuated in 12% of streams by acutely toxic exposures. For aquatic plants, acute but likely reversible effects on biomass were predicted in 75% of streams, with potential longer-term effects on plant communities in 9% of streams. Relatively few pesticides in water—atrazine, acetochlor, metolachlor, imidacloprid, fipronil, organophosphate insecticides, and carbendazim—were predicted to be major contributors to potential toxicity. Agricultural streams had the highest potential for effects on plants, especially in May–June, corresponding to high spring-flush herbicide concentrations. Urban streams had higher detection frequencies and concentrations of insecticides and most fungicides than in agricultural streams, and higher potential for invertebrate toxicity, which peaked during July–August. Toxicity-screening predictions for invertebrates were supported by quantile regressions showing significant associations for the Benthic Invertebrate-PTI and imidacloprid concentrations with invertebrate community metrics for MSQA streams, and by mesocosm toxicity testing with imidacloprid showing effects on invertebrate communities at environmentally relevant concentrations. This study documents the most complex pesticide mixtures yet reported in discrete water samples in the U.S. and, using multiple lines of evidence, predicts that pesticides were potentially toxic to nontarget aquatic life in about half of the sampled streams.