Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Organic contaminants in Great Lakes tributaries: Prevalence and potential aquatic toxicity

March 10, 2016

Organic compounds used in agriculture, industry, and households make their way into surface waters through runoff, leaking septic-conveyance systems, regulated and unregulated discharges, and combined sewer overflows, among other sources. Concentrations of these organic waste compounds (OWCs) in some Great Lakes tributaries indicate a high potential for adverse impacts on aquatic organisms. During 2010–13, 709 water samples were collected at 57 tributaries, together representing approximately 41% of the total inflow to the lakes. Samples were collected during runoff and low-flow conditions and analyzed for 69 OWCs, including herbicides, insecticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, plasticizers, antioxidants, detergent metabolites, fire retardants, non-prescription human drugs, flavors/fragrances, and dyes. Urban-related land cover characteristics were the most important explanatory variables of concentrations of many OWCs. Compared to samples from nonurban watersheds (< 15% urban land cover) samples from urban watersheds (> 15% urban land cover) had nearly four times the number of detected compounds and four times the total sample concentration, on average. Concentration differences between runoff and low-flow conditions were not observed, but seasonal differences were observed in atrazine, metolachlor, DEET, and HHCB concentrations. Water quality benchmarks for individual OWCs were exceeded at 20 sites, and at 7 sites benchmarks were exceeded by a factor of 10 or more. The compounds with the most frequent water quality benchmark exceedances were the PAHs benzo[a]pyrene, pyrene, fluoranthene, and anthracene, the detergent metabolite 4-nonylphenol, and the herbicide atrazine. Computed estradiol equivalency quotients (EEQs) using only nonsteroidal endocrine-active compounds indicated medium to high risk of estrogenic effects (intersex or vitellogenin induction) at 10 sites. EEQs at 3 sites were comparable to values reported in effluent. This multifaceted study is the largest, most comprehensive assessment of the occurrence and potential effects of OWCs in the Great Lakes Basin to date.