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The U.S. Geological Survey's
Environmental Health Newsletter

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Vol. 11, No. 1 – 2014
Washedout road

Disasters and Environmental Health

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists are focusing on new efforts to help protect human and environmental health during disasters. Two papers published recently summarize important characteristics of materials released into the environment by natural and anthropogenic disasters, such as volcanic ash, building collapse dusts and debris, flood sediments, flood waters, wildfire ash and debris, mine tailings, and mineral processing solutions. These papers are based in part on the scientists' own environmental disaster response work spanning ...

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Graphic showing transport of insecticides from farm fields to streams

Neonicotinoid Insecticides Documented in Midwestern U.S. Streams

Three neonicotinoid insecticides (clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid) were detected commonly throughout the growing season in water samples collected from nine Midwestern stream sites during the 2013 growing season according to a team of USGS scientists. Clothianidin was detected most frequently (75 percent) and at the highest maximum concentration (257 nanograms per liter [ng/L]); thiamethoxam and imidacloprid followed with decreasing frequency of detection (47, and 23 percent) and ...

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Map of the United States with symbols indicating which aquifers had increases or no change

Small Decadal-Scale Changes in Pesticides in Groundwater

USGS scientists have completed the most comprehensive evaluation to date (2014) of decadal-scale changes in pesticide concentrations in groundwater of the United States. Such assessments are essential for tracking long-term responses to changes in pesticide use and land-management practices.


Groundwater samples were analyzed for ...

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Wing of a bat in UV light with orange-yellow fluorescence spots

Black-Light Detects White-Nose Syndrome in Bats

USGS scientists and collaborators discovered that long-wave ultraviolet (UV) light directed at the wings of bats with white-nose syndrome (WNS) produced points of distinctive orange-yellow fluorescence. The orange-yellow glow corresponds directly with microscopic skin lesions that define the current "gold standard" for diagnosing WNS. White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), has killed millions of bats in ...

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Dead bald eagle

Winter Eagle Deaths at Great Salt Lake due to West Nile Virus

Scientists from the USGS diagnosed West Nile Virus (WNV) in numerous eared grebes and bald eagles that died in a 2013 mortality event in the Great Salt Lake. Diagnoses were based on findings during pathological analysis to determine cause of death, including molecular detection of WNV genetic material in tissues, and isolation of WNV from multiple tissues from each bird. There was no evidence of the presence of other infectious diseases. West Nile Virus is carried by mosquitos and infects humans, domestic animals, and wildlife. In wildlife ...

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Two sea otters

Human Influenza Virus Infects Sea Otters

USGS scientists, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have discovered evidence of the same influenza virus (H1N1) in sea otters living off the coast of Washington State that caused the 2009 "swine flu" pandemic in humans. During a sea otter health monitoring project conducted in 2011, researchers discovered antibodies for the pandemic 2009 H1N1 flu virus in blood from 70 percent of 51 otters sampled. None of the otters were ...

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Areal photograph of lakes in Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Complex Response to Decline in Atmospheric Deposition of Mercury

USGS scientists found that mercury concentrations in shallow waters and methylmercury (MeHg) concentrations in fish in four lakes in Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, were not consistent with decreases in the wet atmospheric deposition of Hg recorded at nearby monitoring stations for over a decade. Methylmercury is a toxic form of mercury (Hg) that accumulates and biomagnifies in aquatic food webs. Some of the Hg entering aquatic ecosystems is converted to MeHg. Among other things, sulfate levels have been related to ...

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Reflooded post-harvest rice straw

Water Management During Rice Production Influences Methylmercury Production

USGS scientists found that management practices relating to water drawdown and re-flooding in agricultural wetlands used for rice production contributed to higher methylmercury concentrations in sediment than was found in nonagricultural wetlands that were permanently or seasonally flooded.


Seasonal and spatial controls on methylmercury production were ...

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tundra swan

Satellite Tracking of Birds in Alaska Points to Distant Sources of Lead and Mercury Exposure

USGS scientists measured lead in blood from tundra swans that nest in Alaska and then followed the migration of these birds using satellite telemetry. Levels of lead in blood were higher in adults than young swans, suggesting exposure to lead occurs on wintering areas and/or during migration, rather than on the summer breeding grounds in Alaska. The lowest blood levels were found in swans that rarely migrate from their nesting grounds in southern Alaska. The highest levels of lead were ...

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Scientist holding a brook trout with gloved hands

Mercury in Fish from 21 National Parks in the West

USGS and National Park Service (NPS) scientists collaborated in the first study to measure mercury in fish from remote places in 21 National Parks spanning 10 Western States, including Alaska. Mercury levels in fish generally were low, but were elevated in some local areas, including two parks in Utah and Alaska where samples taken from sport fish exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's human health criterion. Results of sample analyses indicate that mercury in the aquatic ecosystems of ...

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A soil sampler in an farm field

Chemicals from Land-Applied Biosolids Persist in Soil

A study by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Colorado State University-Pueblo shows that some chemicals in biosolids that are applied to nonirrigated farmland are sufficiently persistent and mobile to move into the soil beneath farm fields. Biosolids are the treated solid-waste component of wastewater treatment plant effluent; about 50 percent of the biosolids produced in the United States are applied to land as a fertilizer.


The field-scale study was ...

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USGS scientists collecting water-qualty samples from observation wells

Pipeline Crude Oil Spill Still a Cleanup Challenge after 30 Years

Research at a 1979 crude oil spill from a ruptured pipeline has exposed and helped to overcome many challenges facing an effective, cost-efficient cleanup of crude oil, USGS scientists have found. The environmental release of crude oil occurred near Bemidji, Minnesota.


Although natural microbial activity has been degrading the plume of oil contaminants dissolved in groundwater, the crude oil trapped in the aquifer has ...

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Cells with fish virus

Newly Discovered Picornavirus Spread by Baitfish

Scientists from the USGS contributed to a publication that reports the complete gene sequence of a novel picornavirus isolated from minnows and baitfish in several areas of the United States. The scientists used the molecular sequence and characterization of this virus to determine the evolutionary (phylogenetic) placement in the "family tree" of known fish viruses. The scientists then applied epidemiological analysis to show ...

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USGS scientists collecting a soil sample

High Levels of Natural Perchlorate in a Desert Ecosystem

Naturally formed perchlorate falls from the atmosphere and accumulates in the soil of a Nevada desert at rates several times greater than previously thought, according to research by USGS and Texas Tech University scientists published in the Journal of Environmental Quality. The study is the first to document how natural perchlorate is delivered from the atmosphere to the soil and then cycled between soil and plants in a terrestrial ecosystem. Perchlorate has emerged as an environmental contaminant of concern in ...

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Underwater photo of a Sea urchin - Tripneustes gratilla

Sea Urchin Mortality in the Hawaiian Islands

Scientists from the USGS, University of Hawaii, the State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, and The Nature Conservancy are investigating unusual mortality of collector urchins (Tripneustes gratilla) that has been ongoing since February 2014. As grazers, urchins play a critical role in preventing overgrowth of algae on tropical coral reefs. Awareness of the linkage between urchins and coral health became apparent in the early 1980s when ...

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View of forest stream with inset of human ear with chiclero's ulcer

Does Biodiversity Protect Humans Against Infectious Disease?

Conserving nature can improve human lives. From forest watersheds that perform natural filtration of drinking water to coral reefs that break tsunami waves before they flatten seaside villages, intact ecosystems provide innumerable services to human society. Might biodiversity be healthy for the ecosystem and also protect people against infectious diseases? While most disease ecologists would say yes, a new study published in Ecology presents data suggesting that the balance between biodiversity and infectious disease is ...

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Three technicians operating a drill rig

Arsenic in Minnesota Groundwater

USGS and Minnesota Department of Health scientists are assessing the distribution of arsenic in groundwater in Minnesota. Naturally occurring arsenic is common in groundwater in Minnesota. About 15 percent of drinking water wells statewide have arsenic concentrations that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard of 10 micrograms per liter. In a few Minnesota counties, more than one-third of newly drilled wells exceed this EPA standard.


Drinking-water managers, well owners, and well contractors need to ...

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View of a stream with high metals

Metals in Acid Mine Drainage Affect Aquatic Insects

Studies conducted in subalpine streams in Colorado by USGS scientists found that aqueous metals resulting from acid mine drainage and natural weathering can almost eliminate adult insect emergence from streams, even at metal levels too low to reduce aquatic larval densities. This pattern suggests that adult insects might be a more sensitive indicator of metals than juvenile (larval) insects and that adults are not as protected from aquatic contaminants as ...

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Early spring view of a stream in Iowa with melting snow

Toxins Produced by Molds Measured in U.S. Streams

A team of scientists from the USGS and the Agroscope Reckenholz-Tanikon Research Station, Switzerland, found that some mycotoxins are common in U. S. stream waters. Mycotoxins are toxic compounds produced by molds (fungi) that can cause disease and even death in humans and animals. Mycotoxins can grow on a wide variety of crops.


The scientists collected ...

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Latham River at Jekyll Island State Park, Georgia

Nutrient Inputs to the Nation's Estuaries and Great Lakes

Maps and data tables that describe nutrient loading to major estuaries throughout the conterminous United States are now available online. These maps show the major sources of nutrients and their contributing areas for 115 estuaries along the Atlantic coast, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific Northwest coast and from 160 watersheds draining into the Great Lakes. Information on the sources and areas within a watershed that contribute nutrients to the Nation's estuaries can be ...

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Pie chart showing chemical classes

USGS Health-Based Screening Levels Available Online

A USGS Health-Based Screening Level (HBSL) Website includes human-health benchmarks for 351 contaminants (79 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), 117 EPA Human Health Benchmarks for Pesticides , and 155 USGS HBSLs). The Website also provides detailed toxicity information used to calculate HBSLs. A comprehensive update of the USGS HBSL database was completed in June 2014. HBSLs are non-enforceable water-quality benchmarks that can be ...

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Hebert T. Buxton, Managing Editor
David W. Morganwalp, Coordinating Editor
Carol U. Meteyer, Assistant Editor
Kathy E. Lee, Assistant Editor


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