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Urban sprawl leaves its PAH signature

January 1, 2000

The increasing vehicle traffic associated with urban sprawl in the United States is frequently linked to degradation of air quality, but its effect on aquatic sediment is less well-recognized. This study evaluates trends in PAHs, a group of contaminants with multiple urban sources, in sediment cores from 10 reservoirs and lakes in six U.S. metropolitan areas. The watersheds chosen represent a range in degree and age of urbanization. Concentrations of PAHs in all 10 reservoirs and lakes increased during the past 20-40 years. PAH contamination of the most recently deposited sediment at all sites exceeded sediment-quality guidelines established by Environment Canada, in some cases by several orders of magnitude. These results add a new chapter to the story told by previous coring studies that reported decreasing concentrations of PAHs after reaching highs in the 1950s. Concurrent with the increase in concentrations is a change in the assemblage of PAHs that indicates the increasing trends are driven by combustion sources. The increase in PAH concentrations tracks closely with increases in automobile use, even in watersheds that have not undergone substantial changes in urban land-use levels since the 1970s.The increasing vehicle traffic associated with urban sprawl in the United States is frequently linked to degradation of air quality, but its effect on aquatic sediment is less well-recognized. This study evaluates trends in PAHs, a group of contaminants with multiple urban sources, in sediment cores from 10 reservoirs and lakes in six U.S. metropolitan areas. The watersheds chosen represent a range in degree and age of urbanization. Concentrations of PAHs in all 10 reservoirs and lakes increased during the past 20-40 years. PAH contamination of the most recently deposited sediment at all sites exceeded sediment-quality guidelines established by Environment Canada, in some cases by several orders of magnitude. These results add a new chapter to the story told by previous coring studies that reported decreasing concentrations of PAHs after reaching highs in the 1950s. Concurrent with the increase in concentrations is a change in the assemblage of PAHs that indicates the increasing trends are driven by combustion sources. The increase in PAH concentrations tracks closely with increases in automobile use, even in watersheds that have not undergone substantial changes in urban land-use levels since the 1970s.

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