Tag Archives: environment

We are what we eat: Scientists probe the potential effects of emerging contaminants

When contaminants get into the water system, some people might assume that standard water treatment techniques would make that water free from potential contamination.

The truth is, it is not that simple.

What happens when detergents, flavors, fragrances, hormones, medications, new pesticides, veterinary medicines, and other chemicals make their way into waterways of the Great Lakes Basin? Researchers are exploring these contaminants of emerging concern, or CECs, to help us better understand the potential impacts on wildlife and people.

For example, consider a commonly used over-the-counter pain reliever. Sunlight, temperature, pH or microbial activity will naturally break it down into different smaller compounds. Those smaller compounds, and the medication itself, are collectively termed “contaminants of emerging concern.”

Between the years of 2010 and 2014, our agency, the U.S Geologic Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set out to characterize emerging contaminants present in Great Lakes Tributaries.  From 2015 to the present investigations have focused on assessing hazards and impacts these contaminants have on fish and wildlife species.

Daniel Gefell, biologist for the USFWS, holding a Bowfin at one of the sampling sites, USFWS.

Daniel Gefell, biologist for the USFWS, holding a Bowfin at one of the sampling sites, USFWS.

Funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, collaborators sampled water, sediment, and fish populations from a variety of different Great Lakes field sites. In New York, field efforts were primarily focused in the Rochester area and in the North Country in the St. Lawrence river drainage.

The most consistently studied organism is fish, with few studies directed toward the toxic effects in freshwater mussels, freshwater aquatic plants, or other native aquatic species. Four approaches were taken to evaluate fish populations and the effects of emerging contaminants.

1)         Biologists measured over 200 sampling sites and found that many of these emerging contaminants are consistently present in the water and sediment within the Great Lakes Tributaries.  From this information, biologists determined which chemicals are most often detected and at what levels so they could mimic environmental conditions with laboratory studies.

2)         In the same places where CECs were found, wild fish populations were evaluated for indicators of poor health including changes in physical appearance and reproductive health.

Drawing blood from a fish to send in for CEC analysis, USFWS.

Drawing blood from a fish to send in for CEC analysis, USFWS.

3)         Unexposed hatchery raised fish were caged and placed in the same areas where CECs were found and where wild fish were evaluated.  Hatchery fish were used because they were unexposed to CECs before the evaluation.  Biologists then compared hatchery fish to the wild fish to help determine the impacts of CECs on their health.

4)         Biologists looked at previous scientific publications of field and laboratory studies to take advantage of all the information we know about individual chemicals and their effects on fish. Biologists used the lab information to infer hazards to fish due to exposure of CECs.

So far, lab studies are confirming that many of the CECs have negative impacts on fish including mortality, developmental effects, and reduced reproductive capacity. Many studies have also confirmed that some CECs accumulate in fish.

Tumor on the mouth of a bullhead - Photo Credit Jo Ann Banda, USFWS.

Tumor on the mouth of a bullhead – Photo Credit Jo Ann Banda, USFWS.

What does it mean when other animals–or even people–eat those fish?

Not enough information is known yet to say for sure how eating fish living in a CEC rich environment could impact humans, but a study published in 2015 evaluated a large group of northeastern bats to determine if CECs could be found within those bat populations.

Have you ever heard of the phrase “you are what you eat”? That’s essentially what’s happening here.

Northeastern bats have a high metabolism, meaning they have to eat a lot of food! The bats are eating bugs, which may have lived in contaminated environments. In turn, eating a lot of insects could mean they have a higher likelihood of exposure to chemicals in the environment. The bugs are incorporating the contaminants into themselves from eating or living with exposure to these contaminants, and when the bats eat the bugs, the contaminants within the bugs are being incorporated into bat tissues.

The results of the 2015 study showed that CECs could be detected within the bats themselves. The CECs detected most frequently in samples were PBDEs (compounds used in flame retardants), salicylic acid, thiabendazole(a fungicide), and caffeine. Other compounds detected in at least 15% of bat samples were digoxigenin, ibuprofen, warfarin, penicillin V, testosterone, and N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET), all of which are commonly used.

How do these contaminants make their way to bats? Well, we have some clues. When we dispose of household or personal items, or apply substances to our properties, they can make their way to streams. Insects accumulate them because they live in those areas, and then the bats feed on the insects.

Many of the CECs we are most concerned about were made to be biologically active in the human body (i.e. medications) and we know they work well because they made it into the marketplace. That information coupled with the fact that we know very little about the broader scope of CECs, besides lab studies, is troubling.

What this means for human health….we don’t know. A large number of people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. Emerging contaminants have been found in some Great Lakes drinking water supplies.

These are complicated issues that warrant deeper exploration to determine the potential human and environmental health impacts as well as ways to help prevent the continued contamination of our environment.

We live in a world where these types of far-reaching health concerns have become prominent in our day to day lives. It is a stark reminder of the finite resources our world possesses and that the actions we take greatly impact not only our direct health and well-being, but the global health of all who inhabit the earth.

Sprucing Up the Place

Every year Earth Day is a time to celebrate our wonderful planet and the amazing resources it has to offer. From cascading waterfalls nestled in the mountains to the blooming flowers on the desert floor, the Earth has given us awe-inspiring sites, artistic inspiration, and consumable resources. But with increasing urbanization, changing climate, and widespread diseases, our planet is in need of our help. In West Virginia, where Earth Day is every day, people are lending a “limb” to help deter forest degradation and fragmentation.

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Many organizations, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, have come
together in common interest to restore the disappearing red spruce to conserve the biodiversity of the region. More than 500,000 acres across Central Appalachia’s high elevations were once covered by red spruce forest. Less than 10 percent of that remains today. What is left is limited to fragmented high ridge tops and protected coves. Red spruce forests are home to over 300 rare plant and animal species including the West Virginia Northern flying squirrel, Cheat Mountain salamander, and the native brook trout.

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This Earth Day, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge planted nearly 2,500 trees with the help of 62 volunteers. Lauren Merrill, AmeriCorps member serving with the refuge and co-host of the tree planting event, said, “It was raining when the event started, and some people didn’t have rain jackets. Some people even came in shorts! The WVU’s Sierra Student Coalition really pulled through and brought a large group. Everyone was great…” The refuge will have a 4H group come out in May to bring the total to 3,000 planted red spruce. Another organization that held a red spruce planting on Earth Day was The Nature Conservancy at Blackwater Falls State Park. Two AmeriCorps members from our office assisted with restoration efforts.
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Even though the Earth Day festivities have come and gone, it’s a reminder to plant a seed today to ensure the heath and growth of tomorrow.

To get involved in events as described in this article please visit –https://www.fws.gov/refuges/.

Making a difference in the salamander movement

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What might look like a fallen twig in the road is actually a migrating spotted salamander.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

As we slide into our rain gear, the spotted salamanders are already sliding down the hill, making their way toward the wetland across the road.  Driving here was like living in a game of Frogger, only we were the car.  Switching roles now, we park the car and begin escorting as many of these slippery critters across the road as possible.  What had looked like fallen twigs from the car are actually slow-moving salamanders getting crushed by oncoming traffic.  I am joining New York Field Office biologist, Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, on a volunteer mission to document and help migrating woodland amphibians.

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Spotted salamander that emerged from the forest floor on a rainy night.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Salamanders represent one of the largest sources of biomass of all vertebrates in the forest landscape.  They also can help us by eating pest insects, like mosquitoes that breed in the same vernal pools as them.  Just beneath the forest floor are countless hibernating frogs and salamanders, awaiting the first heavy rain after a spring thaw.

Typically, late March and early April are when they resurface from their winter homes, but with unseasonably warm weather this year, some woodland amphibians came out early.  By early March, spring peepers and spotted salamanders are emerging from the earth, half-awake and on auto pilot to make it to the wetland and breed.  This migration has been happening for tens of thousands of years in the forests of New York State, except one thing is different now: we have placed roads in the middle of their route.

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A spotted salamander waits at the roadside, as if pondering whether or not to cross.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

It’s a double-edged sword because roads have made it much easier to see and document this impressive migration, but now there is a spike in fatality.  Driven by instinct, these amphibians all travel in one direction, while cars are streaming from both.  Some are lucky enough to escape the 4 wheels overhead, but for a vast majority, luck fails.

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Spotted salamander makes his way toward the headlights of a car, attempting to cross over to the wetland on the other side.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

That’s where we come in, acting as a free lift service for migrating frogs and salamanders.  One salamander pops his head up over the roadside, another is already making a slow dash in the middle of the road, and then a peeper springs into the action!  We quickly grab those in sight and safely transport them to the other side of the road.  I can’t help but think about how many slip past the two of us before we can rescue them.  I can only imagine what passing cars are thinking as they see our bright orange vests on the side of the road at 10:00 pm in the wind and rain.

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A spotted salamander pops its head over the edge of the road after coming down the hill from the woods.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

There is a small crew of volunteers in Central New York who maintain this late night tradition when the warm spring rains fall.  This is part of a larger effort for the NYSDEC’s Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project, which so far has helped more than 8,500 amphibians cross New York roads safely.  Others are helping make a difference across the Northeast as well.  In Massachusetts, salamander tunnels have been installed to allow safe crossing.  Some areas have even begun to periodically close roads to allow the hundreds, if not thousands of amphibians to make it to their breeding pools without the risk.

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Lending a helping hand to make sure this salamander safely crosses the road.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

With spring still a few weeks away and sporadic temperature changes ahead, there could be more nights like this. If you know of a breeding location or want to lend a helping hand in this effort for the Northeast, you can find a local volunteer opportunity near you. When you’re driving near a wetland, be sure to use extra caution on rainy nights, and be aware there may be volunteers and amphibians out and about.