U.S. Geological Survey - Environmental Health

About the Environmental Health Mission Area Programs

"Everything we do is designed to safeguard the Nation's health, economy, and resources."

Why There is a Need for Our Science

A search of the internet and news cycles on any given day indicates that the American public, health organizations, industry, and government agencies want to know if contaminants and pathogens in the environment pose a risk to the health of humans, pets, livestock, wildlife, fish, and insects. Often the actual risk is not known. Sometimes the potential risk is overstated, sometimes it is unknown, and sometimes the risk is warranted and a contaminant does have an important impact on health.

Vial Containing an Egg Sample
Vial containing an egg sample that will be analyzed for contaminants. Photo Credit: Corey J. Sanders, USGS.

The public wants to know answers to these questions:

  • "Will my pet dog be harmed by swimming in a pond full of algae?";
  • "Does tap water from my privately owned well have contaminants or pathogens in it that can harm my health?";
  • "Do contaminants or pathogens in the environment harm fish or game, and are these animals safe to eat?";
  • "Do hurricanes increase my chances of getting sick from contaminants or pathogens released into water, air, or soils?"

Federal, state, and local government agencies, the private sector, other stakeholder groups, and the public need answers to questions about the actual risk, not the perceived risk, of contaminants. Without clear answers to these and similar questions, media attention to and fears about potential health impacts often lead to litigation, economic uncertainties, and uninformed decision-making.

The non-regulatory science done by Environmental Health Mission Area (EHMA) and other U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Mission Areas provides answers to questions about the actual risk, not the perceived risk, of contaminants and pathogens in the environment.

Who We Are

USGS Environmental Health Science is led by the Contaminant Biology Program, which was started in the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1940s, and the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, which was started in 1982 in the USGS. These programs were brought together in the 2010 USGS reorganization to form the Environmental Health Mission Area (EHMA).

  • The Toxic Substances Hydrology Program (TSHP) supports specialized teams of hydrologists, geologists, geochemists, geographers, microbiologists, and analytical chemists who develop and apply advanced laboratory methods and field investigations to understand how contaminants and pathogens enter and move through the environment.
  • The Contaminant Biology Program (CBP) supports specialized teams of toxicologists and biologists who develop and apply advanced laboratory methods and field investigations to understand how contaminants and patho­gens in the environment affect the health of insects, fish, wildlife, and domestic animals.

The combination of these two long-standing programs provides a unique portfolio of scientists, laboratories, field sites, expertise, and capabilities across the U.S. that is unmatched by any other agency, academia, or the private sector.

These programs now work together, with other USGS Mission Areas, and with many external collaborators to study contaminants and pathogens in the environment and provide the science to help stakeholders protect that most precious resource—health.

USGS Science to Understand Contaminants and Pathogens in the Environment
Figure 1. Environmental contaminant and pathogen science carried out by the USGS Environmental Health Mission Area.

Figure 1 depicts how these experts and their capabilities are combined to fill gaps in our understanding of contaminants and pathogens in the environment.

This national asset is made possible by congressional appropriations for the TSHP and CBP. The President's budget for fiscal year 2019 is a public document (See page BH 54 and BH 56 for specifics on the Environmental Health Mission Area program).

Why We Are Unique

As a science agency, the USGS does not create regulations or policies—rather, it provides science that helps inform effective regulations and policies. USGS environmental health science leverages expertise from across the USGS, bringing an interdisciplinary approach to answer science questions that are not part of the missions of other Federal agencies such as Department of Interior agencies, other land management agencies, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Our non-regulatory science provides Federal, State, and local government agencies, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, other stakeholder groups, and the public with answers to questions about the actual risk, not the perceived risk, of contaminants and pathogens in the environment.

Dr. Bethany K. Kunz sets up a mobile-mounted dust meter
A USGS scientist sets up a mobile-mounted dust meter, which measures concentrations of particulate matter across a range of particle sizes. She and her team use the meter to determine the effectiveness of dust control treatments on roads and estimate human exposure to dust in the inhalable size range. Photo Credit: Christina Mackey, USGS.

For example:

  • Hunters and anglers want to know if contaminants or pathogens in the environment are harming fish or game, and whether these animals are safe to eat.
  • When land resource managers use chemicals (for example, to suppress dusts or wildfire or to control invasive plants and animals), they must understand if these chemicals pose hazards to the health of the public, fish, wildlife, or vegetation.
  • EPA sets policy and regulations for drinking water as it leaves municipal plants for distribution to homes and businesses, but to a much lesser extent for water obtained from privately owned wells. As a result, the quality of tap water from over 40 million privately owned wells in the United States remains poorly understood. Additionally, the quality of tap water supplied by municipalities remains poorly understood because testing for compliance with drinking water standards occurs at the drinking water facility, not at the faucets of homes or businesses (lead and copper are the only exceptions). EHMA studies contaminants in tap water originating from municipal sources and privately owned wells to provide information for understanding if tap water might pose health risks.

Without clear answers to these and similar questions, media attention to and public fears about potential health impacts from contaminants and pathogens often lead to litigation, economic uncertainties, and uninformed decision making.

The EHMA Programs fill these and other knowledge gaps related to disaster preparedness and response, chemical control of invasive species, and naturally occurring toxins associated with algal blooms. EHMA fills knowledge gaps like these and adds value to other agencies' missions.

What We Do

We determine whether contaminants and pathogens in the environment are risks to the health of humans and other organisms. We separate fact from speculation or fear by using impartial science.

M/V Selendang Ayu aground and broken in two on the shore of Unalaska Island
M/V Selendang Ayu aground and broken in two on the shore of Unalaska Island, December 11, 2004, and an estimated 354,218 gallons of oil was released into the environment. Working in partnership with affected State, Tribal, and Federal trustee agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) leads studies for the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) Program that assess the impact ads to aquatic and terrestrial DOI trust resources and evaluate restoration effectiveness.

For contaminants or pathogens that are of stakeholder concern, we provide answers to these questions:

  1. Where do the contaminants or pathogens come from (for example what is the actual natural or human source)?
  2. What happens to them once they enter into the environment? Does their toxicity or pathogenicity decrease or increase? How do humans, pets, livestock, fish, and wildlife come into contact with them?
  3. In what forms and at what levels above which do they pose a risk, and what are their actual health effects to insects, fish, and wildlife?
  4. In collaboration with health scientists, what are the risks they pose to human health?

If there is not a risk we report it to the public and other stakeholders and we redirect our attention to something new.

How We Do It

A Microbiologist Preparing a Water Sample
A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) microbiologist prepares a water sample for enterococci testing. After 24 hours incubation, the microbiologist will be able to determine whether enterococci is present in the water and at what concentration. Photo Credit: Ian M. Hyslop, USGS.
  • We work collaboratively with other environmental health agencies and scientists throughout the U.S. to identify and address the highest priority science gaps.
  • We support a nationally connected network of scientists with specialized expertise in hydrology, geology, chemistry, and biology.
  • We support a nationally connected network of laboratories with specialized capabilities in analytical chemistry, geography, geochemistry, geophysics, toxicology, organism disease, genetics, and microbiology.
  • We support long-term field measurement sites chosen to answer nationally significant questions such as how long contaminants can persist in ground water.
  • We develop state-of-the-art laboratory and field methods that can be applied across the nation with comparable results.

Our Stakeholders

The EHMA supports science used by, and in collaboration with, a diverse stakeholder group including other Department of Interior agencies, other federal and state agencies, municipalities, academia, industry, and non-governmental organizations.

The Department of Interior's top ten priorities expressed by Secretary Ryan Zinke in a recently released Departmental Overview, reflect common priorities of all stakeholders. The EHMA works to address these priorities:

  1. Sustainably develop our energy and natural resources
  2. Protect our people and the border
  3. Strike a regulatory balance
  4. Modernize our infrastructure

Where We Work

The EHMA supports science across the nation. The environmental health programs have flexibility to address emerging environmental health needs. Field locations change over time to address the most pressing environmental health needs for the Nation. The programs provide major funding support for advanced USGS analytical chemistry, microbiology, geochemistry, and wildlife science laboratories in many cities across the U.S., such as: Columbia, Missouri; Laurel, Maryland; Leetown, West Virginia; Madison and Lacrosse, Wisconsin, Iowa City, Iowa; Columbia, South Carolina; Lawrence, Kansas; Lansing, Michigan; Sacramento and Menlo Park, California; Boulder and Lakewood, Colorado; and Reston, Virginia (Table 1).

Table 1. Congressional Districts Receiving Environmental Health Science Support for Facilities or Personnel.
State Congressional District State Congressional District
Alaska 1 New Jersey 12
Arizona 1,3 New Mexico 1
California 3,6,18 Nevada 2
Colorado 2,7 New York 20
Connecticut 2 Ohio 3
Florida 3,13 Oklahoma 5
Iowa 2 Oregon 3,4
Kansas 2 South Carolina 6
Louisiana 3 Texas 10,16
Massachusetts 2 Utah 4
Maryland 4,7 Virginia 7,11
Michigan 8 Washington 7
Minnesota 4 Wisconsin 2,3
Missouri 4 West Virginia 2
Montana 1    
Aerial photograph of a 2016 cyanobacterial bloom on Lake Okeechobee, Florida
Cyanobacterial blooms, such as the one shown that occurred in 2016 on Lake Okeechobee, Florida, can release toxins. Photo Credit: Nicholas Aumen, USGS.

EHMA Science Priorities

Here are a few examples of high priority USGS EH science activities that focus on filling the gaps left behind by other agencies:

  1. Understand the health impacts of natural environmental toxins such as cyanotoxins, measuring their presence and magnitude, and predicting algal and bacterial blooms that can release toxins into surface waters, soils, and dusts.
  2. Help enhance drinking water safety by understanding how pathogens and contaminants in water sources are removed, increased, or changed as they move through the environment, water treatment and distribution infrastructure, and building plumbing to become tap water.
  3. Provide science on chemicals that are used in stewardship of public lands to control invasive pests, weeds, and dust, and to suppress wildfires. This science informs decisions that balance use with impacts, for example understanding levels of chemicals that can be used to maximize effectiveness while at the same time minimizing the potential for unintended health consequences to humans or non-targeted organisms.
  4. Help enhance food safety by understanding and reducing hazards posed by environmental contaminants and pathogens that can affect or result from food production.
  5. Understand, anticipate and mitigate the health hazards posed by contaminants and pathogens released into the environment by a disaster event such as coastal storms, wildfires, floods, structural failures, building collapse, oil, and/or chemical
  6. Provide science to understand and address actual versus perceived health hazards posed by byproducts from natural resource production and utilization.
  7. Understand how pathogens such as the avian influenza virus can survive, move, and be deposited in soils, water, and lake sediments.
  8. Apply USGS analytical technologies to physiological samples to help understand contaminant uptake, transport, fate, and effects in humans and other organisms. These technologies are increasingly recognized and requested by our collaborators in human health and medicine.
  9. Develop advance field, laboratory, monitoring, and modeling capabilities to understand hazards posed to the health of humans and other organisms by new contaminants and complex contaminant mixtures.


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Page Last Modified: 03-Jul-2018 @ 09:05:28 AM EDT