Clarkson University Magazine: Great Lakes Fish Monitoring
PROFESSOR OF CIVIL & ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEERING THOMAS M. HOLSEN IS LEADING AN INTERDISCIPLINARY TEAM OF RESEARCHERS FROM THREE UNIVERSITIES WHO HAVE SPENT THE LAST SEVEN YEARS QUANTIFYING THE LEVELS OF CONTAMINANTS IN TOP PREDATOR FISH AS PART OF THE GREAT LAKES FISHING MONITORING AND SURVELLIANCE PROGRAM (GLFMSP).
The program began in the 1970s and was taken over with a renewed focus in 2005 by Holsen and his team with a $1.75 million, five-year grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2010, the researchers received an additional $6.5 million, five-year grant from the EPA to expand their research on contaminants in the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Historically, the project has targeted chemicals like PCBs and DDT that have already been banned and are widely recognized for causing serious environmental and health-related problems. Since these chemicals are already present in the environment, and are no longer used, there is little that can be done to influence their current or future concentrations.
Now, thanks to improved modeling techniques that help screen chemicals and high-tech analytical instrumentation, the researchers are focusing their attention on a subset of the approximately 30,000 chemical substances in wide commercial use that are not being monitored in environmental media. “Most of these chemicals don’t have characteristics that would indicate they would persist in the environment if released,” says Holsen. “However, others have properties that suggest they may accumulate in the environment and potentially be toxic.
Among the new and emerging contaminants are perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which are found in Teflon and stain-resistant products, flame retardants that are added to many commercial products and synthetic fragrances that are used in products ranging from cosmetics to detergents.
Finding these contaminants requires several new approaches. The team has acquired more than $1.3 million in state-of-the-art analytical equipment that will allow them to analyze for new classes of contaminants at levels that were not previously possible. In addition, the researchers are now analyzing other media for contaminants including water, plankton and zooplankton, trout eggs, fish low on the food chain and organisms that live in the sediments.
“In the past, the project has targeted only top predator fish as bioindicators, notably lake trout and walleye, because they have been regarded as sentinels of the overall condition of the Great Lakes system,” says Holsen. “However, these new chemicals will likely behave differently than previously targeted compounds and may show up at detectable levels in other locations first. This broader approach allows us to identify problem chemicals before they become serious environmental problems.”
Through these studies, the team hopes to improve the understanding of contaminant cycling and bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes and also provide policymakers with the information they need to limit the release of potentially harmful chemicals into the environment and safeguard human health.