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Contaminant Biology Program

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The U.S. Geological Survey Contaminant Biology Program develops and applies advanced laboratory methods and field investigations to understand potential biological health effects from exposures to chemical and microbial hazards in the environment. A primary focus is on the Nation's living resources that are under the stewardship of the Department of the Interior.

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Sampling for aquatic invasive species in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
November 8, 2016

Studies on the aquatic food web, tree swallows, and the spread of contaminants take center stage at SETAC 2016.

Image shows small insects on a rock in a white plastic bucket
October 21, 2016

Environmental Ratios of Cadmium and Zinc are less Toxic to Aquatic Insects than Expected

Vegetation patterns affect both soil moisture and the amount of sunlight that reaches the soil.
September 14, 2016

Mercury contamination is widespread, at various levels across western North America in air, soil, sediment, plants, fish and wildlife.

USGS specializes in science at the environment-health interface, by characterizing the processes that affect the interaction among the physical environment, the living environment, and people, and the resulting factors that affect ecological and human exposure to disease agents.

Our Science Strategy
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Figure 1. The Buffalo National River in Arkansas
Date Published: October 31, 2017
Status: Active

Each year, the Buffalo National River (BUFF) attracts 1.6 million visitors, many of whom enjoy recreational water activities. Since 2013, a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) for swine has been operating on Big Creek, a BUFF tributary.

Black-tailed prairie dog mortality
Date Published: December 19, 2016

The Challenge: Black-tailed prairie dogs are considered a keystone species for the prairie habitat. Many avian species are associated with black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) in winter.  Raptors feed on prairie dogs and non-raptor avian species forage within prairie dog colonies.  However prairie dogs are also considered agricultural pests. The first generation anticoagulant...

Osprey Fledglings still in the nest
Date Published: September 19, 2016

The Challenge: Agricultural, industrial and urban activities have had major effects on waterbirds in Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. Some legacy pollutants (PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, flame retardants, metals) pose a potential threat to wildlife in some locations. Pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and endocrine disrupting compounds have been detected in water and fish tissue, yet...

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Date Published: September 19, 2016

The Challenge: Anticoagulant rodenticides have been identified as being hazardous to predatory and scavenging birds on a global scale. Restrictions on the sale, distribution and packaging of some second generation anticoagulant rodenticides (e.g., brodifacoum, difethialone, bromadiolone and difenacoum) have been instituted by the US EPA, and will likely result in expanded use of first-...

Vultures unintentionally ingested diclofenac when scavenging livestock treated shortly before death.
Date Published: September 19, 2016

The Challenge: Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that has been used by veterinarians for the treatment of inflammation, fever and pain in domestic livestock. This drug appears to have been the principal cause of a severe population crash of vultures of the genus Gyps in India and Pakistan. Vultures unintentionally ingested diclofenac when scavenging livestock treated shortly...

Lead shot as it appears when removed from a shotgun shell and as it appears once ingested, ground and eroded
Date Published: September 19, 2016

The Challenge: The Department of the Interior has extensive responsibilities for management of fish and wildlife, and their supporting habitat. Stewardship activities include assessment of potentially adverse effects of natural and anthropogenic stressors on biota, including chemical contaminants. We assist by providing scientific information to support development of federal guidelines, ...

Study of toxicity of PBDE flame retardants in various bird embryos
Date Published: September 19, 2016

The Challenge: Polybrominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (PBDEs) are contaminants that bioaccumulate and biomagnify in aquatic and terrestrial food webs. Unlike many contemporary pollutants, these flame retardants have increased in the environment over the past 30 years. Studies in Chesapeake and Delaware Bays have documented concentrations of nearly 1 μg/g wet weight of PBDEs in osprey...

Contaminant Exposure and Effects—Terrestrial Vertebrates (CEE-TV) Database Homepage
Date Published: September 19, 2016

The Challenge: The National Contaminant Biomonitoring Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been the only large-scale effort that has examined contaminant exposure in terrestrial vertebrates in the United States. Halogenated contaminants, metals, and new pollutants continue to pose hazards to wildlife at many geographic scales. To address this hazard, critical data gaps are being...

Poudre River looking upstream.
Date Published: August 12, 2016

Water quality and aquatic life standards that are set by Federal and state regulatory agencies are used to evaluate the quality of our nation’s water and the health of aquatic ecosystems. These standards currently are based on hardness of the water and are determined for single metals, not for mixtures of metals that are typically found in natural systems. Metal mixtures can potentially be...

Grand Canyon, Arizona as seen from Desert View Point on the South Rim.
Date Published: July 1, 2016

The use of uranium is an alternative energy source to petroleum products and some of the United States’ highest quality ore is located on the Colorado Plateau. However, some regions where suitable mining efforts are conducted include areas that are near important environmental resources such as National Parks that provide viewscapes and habitat for wildlife.

Monarch butterflies are in decline
Date Published: April 26, 2016

Monarch butterfly populations have declined sufficiently to result in noticeably fewer overwintering at sites in central Mexico as in California.

Rainwater Killifish (Lucania parva)
Date Published: April 18, 2016

As part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, water managers are planning to use treated wastewater from the South District Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) to supplement the canal waters that will be used to rehydrate wetlands adjacent to the Biscayne National Park (Park).

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Year Published: 2017

Contact and contagion: Probability of transmission given contact varies with demographic state in bighorn sheep

Understanding both contact and probability of transmission given contact are key to managing wildlife disease. However, wildlife disease research tends to focus on contact heterogeneity, in part because the probability of transmission given contact is notoriously difficult to measure. Here, we present a first step towards empirically investigating...

Manlove, Kezia R.; Cassirer, E. Frances; Plowright, Raina K.; Cross, Paul C.; Hudson, Peter J.

Year Published: 2017

Gene transcription patterns in response to low level petroleum contaminants in Mytilus trossulus from field sites and harbors in southcentral Alaska

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill damaged a wide range of natural resources, including intertidal communities, and post-spill studies demonstrated acute and chronic exposure and injury to an array of species. Standard toxicological methods to evaluate petroleum contaminants have assessed tissue burdens, with fewer assays providing...

Bowen, Lizabeth; Miles, A. Keith; Ballachey, Brenda E.; Waters, Shannon C.; Bodkin, James L.; Lindeberg, Mandy; Esler, Daniel N.
Bowen, L, AK Miles, B Ballachey, S Waters, J Bodkin, M Lindeberg, D Esler. 2017. Gene transcription patterns in response to low level petroleum contaminants in Mytilus trossulus from field sites and harbors in southcentral Alaska. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography. doi: 10.1016/j.dsr2.2017.08.007

Year Published: 2017

Maternal transfer of mercury to songbird eggs

We evaluated the maternal transfer of mercury to eggs in songbirds, determined whether this relationship differed between songbird species, and developed equations for predicting mercury concentrations in eggs from maternal blood. We sampled blood and feathers from 44 house wren (Troglodytes aedon) and 34 tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) mothers...

Ackerman, Joshua T.; Hartman, C. Alex; Herzog, Mark
Ackerman, JT, CA Hartman, MP Herzog. 2017. Maternal transfer of mercury to songbird eggs. Environmental Pollution 230: 463-468. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2017.06.099

Year Published: 2017

Widespread occurrence and potential for biodegradation of bioactive contaminants in Congaree National Park, USA

Organic contaminants with designed molecular bioactivity, such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals, originate from human and agricultural sources, occur frequently in surface waters, and threaten the structure and function of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Congaree National Park in South Carolina (USA) is a vulnerable park unit due to its...

Bradley, Paul M.; Battaglin, William A.; Clark, Jimmy M.; Henning, Frank; Hladik, Michelle L.; Iwanowicz, Luke; Journey, Celeste A.; Riley, Jeffrey W.; Romanok, Kristin
Bradley, P.M., W.A. Battaglin, J.M. Clark, F.P. Henning, M.L. Hladik, L.R. Iwanowicz, C.A. Journey, J.W. Riley, and K.M. Romanok. 2017. Widespread Occurrence and Potential for Biodegradation of Bioactive Contaminants in Protected Wilderness of Congaree National Park, USA. Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry. https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.3873

Year Published: 2017

Occurrence and in vitro bioactivity of estrogen, androgen, and glucocorticoid compounds in a nationwide screen of United States stream waters

In vitro bioassays are sensitive, effect-based tools used to quantitatively screen for chemicals with nuclear receptor activity in environmental samples. We measured in vitro estrogen (ER), androgen (AR), and glucocorticoid receptor (GR) activity, along with a broad suite of chemical analytes, in streamwater from 35 well-characterized sites (3...

Conley, Justin M.; Evans, Nicola; Cardon, Mary C.; Rosenblum, Laura; Iwanowicz, Luke; Hartig, Phillip C.; Schenck, Kathleen M.; Bradley, Paul M.; Wilson, Vickie S.
Justin M. Conley, Nicola Evans, Mary C. Cardon, Laura Rosenblum, Luke R. Iwanowicz, Phillip C. Hartig, Kathleen M. Schenck, Paul M. Bradley, Vickie S. Wilson. 2017. Occurrence and in vitro bioactivity of estrogen, androgen, and glucocorticoid compounds in a nationwide screen of United States stream waters. Environmental Science & Technology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.6b06515

Year Published: 2017

Geographic and temporal patterns of variation in total mercury concentrations in blood of harlequin ducks and blue mussels from Alaska

We compared total mercury (Hg) concentrations in whole blood of harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) sampled within and among two geographically distinct locations and across three years in southwest Alaska. Blue mussels were collected to assess correlation between Hg concentrations in locally available forage and birds. Mercury...

Savoy, Lucas; Flint, Paul L.; Zwiefelhofer, Denny; Brant, Heather; Perkins, Christopher R.; Taylor, Robert J.; Lane, Oksana P.; Hall, Jefferson S.; Evers, David C.; Schamber, Jason
Savoy, L., Flint, P., Zwiefelhofer, D., Brant, H., Perkins, C., Taylor, R., Lane, O., Hall, J., Evers, D., and Schamber, J., 2017, Geographic and temporal patterns of variation in total mercury concentrations in blood of harlequin ducks and blue mussels from Alaska, vol. 117, no. 1-2, p. 178-183. Doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.01.084

Year Published: 2017

Mercury and water level fluctuations in lakes of northern Minnesota

Large lake ecosystems support a variety of ecosystem services in surrounding communities, including recreational and commercial fishing. However, many northern temperate fisheries are contaminated by mercury. Annual variation in mercury accumulation in fish has previously been linked to water level (WL) fluctuations, opening the possibility of...

Larson, James H.; Maki, Ryan P; Christensen, Victoria G.; Sandheinrich, Mark B.; LeDuc, Jaime F.; Kissane, Claire; Knights, Brent C.
Larson, J.H., Maki, R.P., Christensen, V.G., Sandheinrich, M.B., LeDuc, J.F., Kissane, C., Knights, B.C. 2017. Mercury and water level fluctuations in lakes of northern Minnesota. bioRxiv. DOI: 10.1101/118638.

Year Published: 2017

Cyanide poisoning of a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

A Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was found dead in a ditch leading from a heap leach pad at a gold mine in Nevada. Observations at autopsy included an absence of external lesions, traces of subcutaneous and coronary fat, no food in the upper gastrointestinal tract, and no lesions in the viscera. Cyanide concentrations (µg/g ww) were 5.04 in...

Franson, J. Christian

Year Published: 2017

Editor’s note

Heavy metal contamination at shooting ranges is well documented (e.g., Heier et al. 2009; Islam et al. 2016). Primarily lead, but also copper, zinc, and antimony often occur at high concentrations in shooting range soils; cadmium, nickel, silver, and arsenic may also be present (Cao et al. 2003; Islam et al. 2016). These metals represent a...

Schmitt, Christopher J.
Schmitt, C. J., 2016, Editor’s Note. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Online First 28 December 2016: 1-1

Year Published: 2017

Organic contamination in tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) nestlings at United States and binational great Lakes Areas of Concern

Contaminant exposure of tree swallows, Tachycineta bicolor, nesting in 27 Areas of Concern (AOCs) in the Great Lakes basin was assessed from 2010 to 2014 to assist managers and regulators in their assessments of Great Lakes AOCs. Contaminant concentrations in nestlings from AOCs were compared with those in nestlings from nearby non-AOC sites....

Custer, Thomas W.; Custer, Christine M.; Dummer, Paul; Goldberg, Diana R.; Franson, J. Christian; Erickson, Richard A.
Custer, T.W., Cuser, C., Dummer, P., Goldberg, D.R., Franson, J.C., Erickson, R.A. 2016. Organic contamination in tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) nestlings at United States and binational great Lakes Areas of Concern. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. DOI: 10.1002/etc.3598.

Year Published: 2011

Bird mercury concentrations change rapidly as chicks age: Toxicological risk is highest at hatching and fledging.

Toxicological risk of methylmercury exposure to juvenile birds is complex due to the highly transient nature of mercury concentrations as chicks age. We examined total mercury and methylmercury concentrations in blood, liver, kidney, muscle, and feathers of 111 Forster's tern (Sterna forsteri), 69 black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), and 43...

Ackerman, Joshua T.; Eagles-Smith, Collin A.; Herzog, Mark P.
Bird mercury concentrations change rapidly as chicks age: toxicological risk is highest at hatching and fledging.; 2011; Article; Journal; Environmental Science and Technology; Ackerman, Joshua T.; Eagles-Smith, Collin A.; Herzog, Mark P.

Year Published: 2010

Agricultural wetlands as potential hotspots for mercury bioaccumulation: Experimental evidence using caged fish

Wetlands provide numerous ecosystem services, but also can be sources of methylmercury (MeHg) production and export. Rice agricultural wetlands in particular may be important sites for MeHg bioaccumulation due to their worldwide ubiquity, periodic flooding schedules, and high use by wildlife. We assessed MeHg bioaccumulation within agricultural...

Ackerman, Joshua T.; Eagles-Smith, Collin A.
Agricultural wetlands as potential hotspots for mercury bioaccumulation: Experimental evidence using caged fish; 2010; Article; Journal; Environmental Science and Technology; Ackerman, J. T.; Eagles-Smith, C. A.

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larval mussels
October 26, 2013

Recent advancements in assessments using early life stages of test organisms (like the larval mussels shown) provide robust alternatives to full life-cycle chronic ecotoxicity tests. For more information on aquatic toxicology test organisms refer to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Columbia Environmental Research Center's Fish and Invertebrate Toxicology Branch.

USGS scientist standing in a stream. The rocks in the stream have iron precipitates
June 28, 2012

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist pauses during field work in a stream impacted by acidic runoff and metal contamination. Iron precipitates are visible on the stream's rocks. The mesh pyramid is an insect emergence trap. A riparian zone rich in terrestrial insects can provide an alternate food source for fish in metal-impacted watersheds. USGS scientists have found that fish diets can switch from aquatic to terrestrial insects in streams effected by metal contamination.

Game camera image of an osprey taken on Poplar Island, Maryland
June 28, 2012

Game camera image of an osprey taken on Poplar Island, Maryland. Game cameras were used to identify species of fish fed to osprey nestlings. The image was taken during a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study on organic contaminant levels and the reproductive success of ospreys in Chesapeake Bay. Changes in the regulation and use of some organic chemicals have caused environmental concentrations to stabilize or decline during the past 35 years coincident with a rebound in the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population of the Chesapeake Bay.

A tree swallow - Tachycineta bicolor
May 16, 2011

A typical tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) in the Great Lakes area. Tree swallows were studied by the scientists for contaminants in the eggs. Tree swallow eggs at most study sites in the Great Lakes basin were minimally exposed to legacy organic contaminants and brominated flame retardants.

USGS scientist collecting a liver tissue sample from a wild-caught white sucker
April 12, 2011

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist collecting a liver tissue sample from a wild-caught white sucker (Catostomus commersonii) from a river in the Great Lakes area.

The first known hepatitis B virus to infect fish (white sucker) has been discovered by USGS scientists. This newly discovered virus is in the family Hepadnaviridae, which include similar viruses in mammals and birds. In mammals, including humans, these viruses are typically associated with liver diseases including fibrosis, cirrhosis, and cancer. Human hepatitis B virus has a specific protein that is associated with cancer induction, and this tumor-associated protein is not present in the new hepatitis B virus isolated from white suckers.

Dr. Diann J. Prosser examining a ruddy shelduck
September 14, 2008

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Dr. Diann J. Prosser examining a ruddy shelduck in China. Dr. Diann J. Prosser was awarded the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. Dr. Prosser was recognized for her scientific leadership in developing an international interdisciplinary program to understand the role of wild birds in the spread of lethal avian influenza viruses, and for exceptional outreach to the public and mentoring at the high school through postdoctoral levels.

cientists collecting bed-sediment samples from Suwanee Creek, Georgia
May 23, 2007

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists collecting bed-sediment samples from Suwanee Creek, Gwinnett County, Georgia, on May 23, 2007. 

In addition to news release about our latest papers we also provide Environmental Health Science Feature Articles that highlight the results of our investigations.

See Our Science Feature Articles
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Image shows a fish in a tank beneath a half-circle shelter
July 11, 2016

When you’re not dead yet, but aren’t feeling well either, there’s an EarthWord for that...

Image shows a map with an aerial image of the study site beneath it
May 9, 2016

These are the first published studies to demonstrate water-quality impacts to a surface stream due to activities at an unconventional oil and gas wastewater deep well injection disposal site.

Image: Chesapeake Bay osprey chicks mostly healthy despite toxic exposure
April 4, 2016

The world's largest breeding population of ospreys is coping well with the long-lasting residues of toxic chemicals that were banned decades ago but remain in the Chesapeake Bay food chain at varying levels, such as the pesticide DDT and insulating chemicals known as PCBs.

Scientists preparing sediment quality sampling supplies for deployment in advance of Hurricane Joaquin.
December 18, 2015

Medical Geology is an earth science specialty that concerns how geologic materials and earth processes affect human health. 

Map of the Glen Canyon Dam study area
August 19, 2015

Although the Grand Canyon segment of the Colorado River features one of the most remote ecosystems in the United States, it is not immune to exposure from toxic chemicals such as mercury according to newly published research in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

USGS science for a changing world logo
August 18, 2015

USGS discovered insecticides known as neonicotinoids in a little more than half of both urban and agricultural streams sampled across the United States and Puerto Rico, according to a study by the agency published today inEnvironmental Chemistry.

USGS logo
May 29, 2014

Scientists working to understand the devastating bat disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) now have a new, non-lethal tool to identify bats with WNS lesions —ultraviolet, or UV, light.

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