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Similar rates of decrease of persistent, hydrophobic and particle-reactive contaminants in riverine systems

January 1, 1998

Although it is well-known that concentrations of anthropogenic radionuclides and organochlorine compounds in aquatic systems have decreased since their widespread release has stopped in the United States, the magnitude and variability of rates of decrease are not well-known. Paleolimnological studies of reservoirs provide a tool for evaluating these long-term trends in riverine systems. Rates of decrease from the 1960s to the 1990s of 137Cs, PCBs, and total DDT in dated sediment cores from 11 reservoirs in the eastern and central United States were modeled using first-order rate models. Mean half-times of 10.0 (±2.5), 9.5 (±2.2), and 13 (±5.8) yr for decay-corrected 137Cs, PCBs, and total DDT, respectively, are surprisingly similar. Similar rates of decrease in a few reservoirs are also demonstrated for chlordane and lead. Conceptual and simple mathematical models relating two soil distributions of 137Cs to trends in the cores provide insight into differences in trends between watersheds with different land uses and suggest that trends are controlled by erosion, transport, mixing, and deposition of sediments. These results, supported by similar trends reported for other settings and environmental media, could provide an estimate of the decadal response time of riverine systems to changes in the regulation of other persistent hydrophobic or particle-reactive contaminants.