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USGS News: Environmental Health
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News about contaminants, and toxics from the USGS.
News about contaminants, and toxics from the USGS.

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New Study Provides the First Comprehensive, Long-term Look at Alaska’s Changing Ecosystems: New research has revealed significant changes to Alaska’s landscape in recent decades. During the past 32 years, about 13 percent of the state -- 67,000 square miles or an area larger than the state of Wisconsin -- has changed, according to a new USGS-led study in collaboration with researchers from academia (e.g. University of Minnesota) and other federal agencies (e.g. NASA ABoVE [Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment]). Fog along the Yukon River showing a Black Spruce dominated forest in the foreground, which is prone to wildfire.  Photo by Bruce Wylie, USGS (Public domain.) This is the first study to document more than three decades of land and water changes across Alaska, and it is the first study to quantify the underlying drivers of those changes, which is vital for understanding how these systems may continue to change.   Alaska has experienced glacial retreat, shrub and treeline expansion, wildfires, erosion, pollution disturbances, and other changes over the last 32 years. Most of that change occurred in boreal regions due to the residual effects of fires that are still apparent after 60 years.   To fingerprint the sensitivity of Alaska’s ecosystems to changing environmental conditions and disturbances, the team of researchers combined aerial photography, satellite imagery (e.g. Landsat) and climate data into an integrated modeling framework. As a result, according to lead author Neal Pastick, the study provided the most detailed and comprehensive reconstruction of modern-day landscape transformation in Alaska to date. Map of Alaska showing probability (%) of change occurrence. Insets show fire boundaries from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Large Fire Database and Landsat 8 imagery (bottom right; 2016) north of Fairbanks, Alaska. (Public domain.) Renowned landscape ecologist, Professor A. David McGuire from the University of Alaska Fairbanks – and a co-lead investigator and author of a ground-breaking study in to carbon and greenhouse gas effects on Alaskan ecosystems – believes that this research "…fills a critical gap in the understanding of the historical and potential future trajectories of change not only in Alaska, but in other northern high latitude regions.”   The team discovered that Arctic and boreal landscapes have experienced unprecedented changes in recent decades, a trend that is expected to continue, with significant consequences for natural and man-made systems. Despite a legacy of studies that have documented the heightened sensitivity of northern high latitude regions to change, the characterization and prognosis of that ecosystem change has remained elusive.   As one example, rising air temperatures are found to have directly and indirectly promoted vegetation growth through vegetation expansion and the exposure of land surfaces as glaciers retreat. But warming has also increased evaporation, resulting in decreased plant productivity and drought that can increase the risk of disease, fire, and mortality for woody vegetation. These changes can have a substantial impact on animal migration patterns and subsistence hunting.  This finding demonstrates that northern high latitudes are not responding in a simple, linear fashion as air temperatures increase.   Along with increasing air temperatures, the amount of surface water has generally increased across Alaska.  Surface water gains have occurred predominately in areas with extensive permafrost (perennially frozen ground) that have experienced the largest increases in mean annual air temperatures. Melting permafrost can result in land subsidence and ground collapses that affect roads, as well as other infrastructure needed for natural resource extraction. Remnants of a spruce forest complex following a severe wildfire in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Wildfires are the dominant landscape-scale disturbance operating at annual time scales in Alaska, and fires play a major role in the rate and extent of vegetation growth and productivity of a site. Wildland fires typically result in the reduction of surface albedos shortly after occurrence and combustion of below and above-ground biomass results in the release of heat trapping gases to the atmosphere.  Photo by Bruce Wylie, USGS. (Public domain.) While these changes will continue to impact human and wildlife populations in Alaska, they also will influence ecosystem and climate processes which may have far-reaching consequences for communities outside of Alaska.   “The upshot is that combined effects could push systems past tipping points and impact large areas, especially after fires,” said USGS scientist Bruce Wylie, who co-authored the study.   Adaptation to climate change requires enhanced monitoring capabilities to detect and track changes in globally significant Arctic and boreal landscapes, and characterization and prognosis of change is an essential component for better understanding the vulnerability and resilience of northern high latitude regions to change. The continuation of the Landsat program, along with upcoming and related satellite missions (e.g. ICESat-2, Sentinel), will allow scientists to continue to fingerprint environmental and human-induced changes that affect human welfare and global ecosystems. Neal Pastick – lead author of the study – investigating erosion along Alaska’s Arctic coastline near the village of Kaktovik. Permafrost-dominated coasts of Alaska have drastically changed as the result of coastal transgression and storm-surge flooding which can result in the loss of cultural sites and damage to infrastructure.  Photo by M. Torre Jorgenson (Public domain.)   #environment

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STEP-UP to Science: Engaging Young Adults with Disabilities: Modeled after a successful program in USGS headquarters near Washington, DC, the program is expanding to three school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Starting the week of January 16, eleven students from three school districts in Santa Clara County, California, will begin projects at USGS’s Menlo Park campus. The partner school districts are the Palo Alto Unified School District, Fremont Union High School District and the Santa Clara Unified School District. USGS is recognized as a leader among federal science agencies in training, leveraging the unique strengths of students with cognitive disabilities while allowing them to explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers, expand their employment opportunities, and become part of a diverse USGS workforce for the future. What: Kick-off reception for USGS STEP-UP hiring program for disabled young adults. Who: Participating students, teachers, job coaches, district superintendents and school board members from: Palo Alto Unified School District, Fremont Union High School District, and Santa Clara Unified School District Representatives from Bay Area congressional offices, elected state officials USGS host supervisor scientists, and USGS leadership and staff When: Wednesday, January 17, 2018, 9:30 – 10:30 a.m. (Reception) and 11:00 a.m. (Observation of students working) Where: U.S. Geological Survey California Conference Room, Bldg. 3, 2nd floor 345 Middlefield Road Menlo Park, California RSVP: Leslie Gordon, lgordon@usgs.gov, 650-329-4006   The USGS is forming partnerships at its various offices across the nation with local school districts and universities with established job training and transition programs. USGS identifies specific projects relevant to the work of its scientists, and then matches students to the projects based on their individual interests and aptitude. The school districts provide job coaches and onsite oversight. The USGS STEP-UP Program will: - Advance USGS science by making USGS data more quickly available to more scientists. - Support the USGS Fundamental Science Practices by properly archiving data and collections. - Supplement the USGS budget by using volunteers to achieve measurable work. - Support the Federal Government’s goal of building a more inclusive and diverse workforce by becoming a model for job-training of people with cognitive disabilities. - Increase the diversity of the USGS workforce by hiring some of the STEP-UP program graduates.   Student and job coach participting in the STEP-UP progam at U.S. Geological Survey.(Public domain) Young woman employeed at the U.S. Geological Survey as part of the STEP-UP program.(Public domain.) #environment

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Scientists Home in on Causes of High Radium Levels in Key Midwestern Aquifer: U.S. Geological Survey scientists have shed new light on processes that happen deep underground. These processes — which cause radium to leach from aquifer rocks into groundwater — are responsible for high concentrations of naturally occurring radium in groundwater from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. This aquifer provides more than 630 million gallons of water a day for public supply to parts of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin. A newly published USGS study helps explain how radium isotopes 224, 226, and 228 make their way into water in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer and where concentrations are highest. Knowing where and how much radium is in groundwater is important because of the health risks associated with drinking water that’s high in radioactive isotopes. Known health risks include bone cancer and leukemia.   “Millions of people rely on the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer for drinking water,” said Paul Stackelberg, USGS hydrologist and study lead. “By helping to identify the conditions that cause high levels of radium in water from the aquifer, we can help water utilities and resource managers understand where radium levels are likely to be high and thereby prioritize resources for monitoring activities, alternative water resource development, and public education programs.” Radium can be removed from drinking water through treatment, thereby limiting the health risks it poses. The groundwater tested in this study came from public supply wells, before treatment and distribution. Private wells were not tested during this study, however, more than half a million people get their drinking water from private wells that tap the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. These homeowners might consider having their water tested for radium. Previous water-quality testing by federal, state, and local agencies has found that radium isotopes 226 and 228 occur in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer at levels that exceed those in most other U.S. aquifers and that, in some locations, are higher than the EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) for radium. The USGS study also measured a third radium isotope, 224, that was not tested for in previous studies. Radium 224 adds radioactivity to groundwater but has no EPA MCL because its risks to human health are lower than isotopes 226 and 228. The levels of isotope 224 were found to be nearly equal to 228 but generally less than 226. This study, part of the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Project, investigated the conditions that cause higher-than-typical amounts of radium in water from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer. By looking at variables like groundwater age, dissolved minerals, and dissolved oxygen levels in 80 samples collected across six states, researchers were able to better understand the conditions that cause radium to leach into groundwater at higher levels. Water that was recharged into the aquifer long ago, that contains greater amounts of dissolved minerals, and that is low in dissolved oxygen is more likely to leach radium from its surrounding rock. Map: Concentrations of radium in samples of untreated groundwater from the confined parts of the Cambrian-Ordovician groundwater system frequently exceeded the USEPA maximum contaminant level of 5 picocuries per liter in Illinois, Iowa, and eastern Wisconsin, where wells tap deeper, older groundwater. Click map to enlarge. "Radium mobility and the age of groundwater in public-drinking-water supplies from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system, north-central USA," is available online in the journal Applied Geochemistry. #environment

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Investigating Lung Disease in Military Veterans: Many veterans turned to America’s top-ranked respiratory hospital, National Jewish Health (NJH), for answers. Doctors at NJH started collecting information from the patients’ personal histories. The doctors ran routine tests on the patients, but all the tests returned negative. When doctors, at last, turned to surgical lung biopsies, they noticed unexplained abnormalities affecting the smaller airways of the lung. “You can’t really treat people unless you have a diagnosis to know what you’re treating,” said Cecile Rose, professor of medicine and medical director of the Center of Excellence on Deployment-Related Lung Disease at NJH. “And you can’t prevent disease unless you know what caused it. So, that prompted us to explore building collaborations with scientists like those at the U.S. Geological Survey, who have a very different perspective.” U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 17 faces a dust storm while constructing a combat outpost in Iraq near the Syrian border in 2008. Photograph credit: Dr. Richard Meehan, National Jewish Health(Public domain.) Rose recalled the partnership as “serendipitous,” stemming from her time coteaching a course on health and environmental exposure with Geoffrey Plumlee, associate director of environmental health at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Together, NJH and the USGS are trailblazing a new path in the collaborative field of “medical geology.” “USGS scientists had been working with the Fire Department of New York medical folks, looking at mineral particles in [the] lung tissue of World Trade Center responders,” Plumlee explained. He and Rose applied a similar approach to the soldiers’ lung biopsy samples, comparing tissues among previously deployed patients with lung problems, those whose lung issues were unrelated to military deployment, and those with no symptoms. Pulmonologists at NJH identified inflamed and injured tissue, and USGS geologists closely examined the tissue to see what might be there. “A lot of these particles are two micrometers or less, with some as small as 50 nanometers,” explained Heather Lowers, a research geologist and manager of the USGS Denver Microbeam Laboratory. “Hair, for instance, is about 80 micrometers wide. So, these are very small particles.” To glimpse these tiny suspects and identify and count different types of particles, Lowers and her team shot beams of electrons at the particles and recorded the x-rays that bounced off them. In some patients, there were too many particles to count. Then, the team shined lasers over the samples to map where metals and other elements were unusually elevated in the tissue. The particles the USGS team observed fell into three categories: man-made sources, like steel; geological sources, like quartz from sand; and particles that formed within the lung itself. The team’s methods showed precisely where in the lung the contaminants could be found, giving NJH pulmonologists a clearer picture for diagnosis and treatment. Backscattered electron image acquired with a scanning electron microscope of lung tissue (darker areas) and inorganic particulate matter (lighter areas). Credit: USGS Denver Microbeam Laboratory(Public domain.) The USGS brought to the project knowledge of high-resolution techniques, mineral sources, and how minerals interact with the body’s fluids over time. The NJH team applied that knowledge to human health, using the findings for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. “The analytical techniques that USGS scientists developed for this purpose had not been previously developed,” Rose said. “It is this kind of collaboration that allows us to cross disciplinary boundaries.” The team anticipates publishing the findings from the first phase of the study soon. The USGS is also part of a new study with an expanded group of collaborators at NJH, which will enable the scientists to refine their understanding of how the particles may link to soldiers’ lung problems. “We are, through this collaboration, in a much better place to get the answers to these fundamental questions around cause and mechanism,” Rose said. “I think science in this day and age really requires cross-disciplinary collaboration.” By working together, two seemingly unrelated groups—National Jewish Health and the U.S. Geological Survey—are taking steps to solve an environmental and public health crisis, an accomplishment that will help affected veterans receive the treatment they need. Dr. Richard Meehan, Battalion Surgeon for Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 17, taking air quality measurements during a dust storm at Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq. Photograph credit: Dr. Richard Meehan, National Jewish Health(Public domain.)   Read more stories about USGS science in action.  Click here for the print version. #environment

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USGS Releases Selenium Modeling Framework for Montana and British Columbia’s Lake Koocanusa: This is thanks to a new modeling framework by the U.S. Geological Survey that lays out how to use available, site-specific data within a proven modeling approach to understand how selenium may move and build up in the Lake Koocanusa ecosystem. “I’m excited for the release of this modeling framework,” said USGS scientist Karen Jenni, lead author of newly released report. “It represents another important step in our continued collaborative work to understand the risks of selenium in the reservoir, and provides the structure for using existing and future data to support regulatory decision-making. So even though we have more work to do, the framework will hopefully allow us and other agencies to target research and monitoring efforts on where they’re needed most.” Libby Dam on the Kootenai River. Image credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Public domain.) Lake Koocanusa is a 90-mile long transboundary reservoir in northwestern Montana and southeastern British Columbia, created in 1972 with the completion of Libby Dam. The basin contains critical habitat for the endangered white sturgeon, threatened bull trout, and westslope cutthroat trout, which has been identified as a species of concern by Montana and British Columbia. Selenium is an essential dietary element; however, too much of it can result in toxic effects. It can be highly toxic to fish and aquatic birds when it builds up in ecosystems, resulting in animals developing deformities or failing to reproduce normally. Southern British Columbia has large reserves of high-grade coal, which is shipped globally for steel making. While of high quality, the coal resides deep within mountainous terrain along the Elk River Valley, which means mining the coal can produce a lot of waste rock. Selenium leaches out of this waste rock and into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kootenai River which forms Lake Koocanusa behind Libby Dam.  From 1992 to 2012, the amount of selenium entering the lake each year increased fivefold, from 2,600 kg in 1992 to more than 13,000 kg in 2012. As a result, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality declared Lake Koocanusa impaired by selenium, and Teck Coal Ltd prepared, and the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment approved, a water quality plan for the Elk Valley upstream from the lake. Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenay/Kootanai River Basin.  (Public domain.) In 2015, the Montana DEQ and British Columbia Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy established the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group to study, understand, and address current and future water-quality concerns in the Lake Koocanusa watershed and to work towards joint solutions for managing potential selenium contamination including development of site-specific criteria for the protection of uses of the Lake. In part because of the differences in recently-released U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water quality criteria for selenium and British Columbia’s selenium guidelines, the Lake Koocanusa Monitoring and Research Working Group has focused its efforts on developing site-specific criteria that will be protective of the species in Lake Koocanusa. “That’s where our framework comes in,” said Jenni. “The model can incorporate data collected by all of the partners, use it to estimate bioaccumulation levels in fish and, ultimately, predict future concentrations in fish based on different potential limits on the concentration of selenium in water in the lake.” The modeling framework leverages existing, published USGS methods and model for measuring selenium from various sources, tracking it as it spreads through an ecosystem, and estimating how much it will build up in the food web of a given ecosystem (e.g., ecosystem-scale selenium modeling).  It complements an earlier data release that documents recent USGS data collection and analysis of selenium levels in the lake. A USGS report describing the model and its framework can be found here. The data release is available at the USGS ScienceBase website. Read more about how USGS science helps decision-makers here. #environment

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Shedding Light on Contaminants in Congaree National Park: The study examined whether contaminants are commonly found within protected areas, and if so, their sources. These insights have implications for managing these, and other, protected lands in the United States. The contaminants found were detected at levels below any considered to pose a risk to the health of park visitors who might drink or come in contact with waters in the backcountry. Additional research would need to take place to determine if the present levels or mixture of contaminants could cause adverse health impacts to aquatic organisms. “Congaree National Park, like other parks around the country, is positioned in a landscape where surrounding land uses, municipal wastewater discharges and on-site visitation can potentially introduce contaminants into the protected areas,” said Paul Bradley, USGS Research Ecologist/Hydrologist and lead author of the study. “Our main goal with this study, which was requested by the National Park Service, was to provide key information to help park managers understand the potential sources of a variety of water contaminants detected in protected areas.” The researchers collected 72 water and sediment samples from 16 river and lake sites around the park and found 49 pharmaceuticals and 47 other contaminants, including pesticides and chemicals associated with wastewater. “While there was a large variety of contaminants found during the study, many were detected in locations that could be explained by agriculture or wastewater treatment plants on rivers upstream and outside of the park,” Bradley said. “However, some of the contaminants were found in lakes far away from the rivers flowing into the park, leading us to believe the source of these was likely people within the park.” Pharmaceuticals were found in water samples from across the park, with higher occurrences and concentrations near the Congaree and Wateree Rivers and in Horseshoe Lake, which are all locations downstream of municipal wastewater discharges from Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina. Metformin, a drug used to treat diabetes and one often found when wastewater discharges into rivers or streams, was the most frequently detected pharmaceutical. It was found in 61 percent of the samples, and was the only pharmaceutical observed in either water or sediments at all 16 sites.  Some of the contaminants found, like antibiotics and antibacterials, have been shown in studies elsewhere to negatively affect microbes, which form the base of aquatic food webs. Other pharmaceuticals detected in the park have been shown elsewhere to alter fish behavior and health. The insect repellant DEET, or N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide, was one of the most commonly found contaminants in the park, being detected in 71 percent of all water samples. It was found at least once in every surface water body within the park, including those deep in the park unaffected by wastewater discharges. In order to protect aquatic life and minimize human exposure to contaminants, all municipal wastewater is treated to add oxygen, disinfect water, and in some cases remove nutrients before it is released back into rivers and streams. However, wastewater treatment plants are not required to remove pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other organic compounds commonly found at low levels in wastewater effluents. The researchers also examined the likelihood that sediment-bound contaminants could naturally biodegrade in the park. They determined the park’s marsh-like floodplains are characterized by low oxygen conditions that are not conducive to biodegradation.       “Most of the detected contaminants are not going to disappear very quickly,” Bradley said. This study is one of several examining the source of contaminants entering protected areas. “The National Parks are protected areas, but contaminants that may be of health concern to aquatic life have the potential of entering the park from both inside and outside sources,” Bradley said. “Understanding if contaminants are present and, if so, what their likely sources are is key to helping park leadership manage the risk of exposure to people and wildlife.” To read the entire study, titled “Widespread Occurrence and Potential for Biodegradation of Bioactive Contaminants in Congaree National Park, USA,” click here. The USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program and the USGS National Water Quality Program, NPS Water Quality Partnership supported this research. Click here to read an associated Science Feature “Sources of Commonly Used Chemicals in National Parks—USGS and National Park Service Working Together.” #environment

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Tracking the Bad Guys: Toxic Algal Blooms: An aerial view of Lake Okeechobee in Florida shows an algal bloom. A third of all lakes studied by the USGS contained toxins produced by similar blooms. Photograph credit: Nicholas Aumen, USGS. Cyanobacteria inhabit water in every corner of the world. These microorganisms possess the qualities of algae and bacteria, and under certain environmental conditions, cyanobacteria multiply rapidly, creating harmful algal blooms (cyanoHABs). During blooms, cyanobacteria produce toxins, such as microcystins, in amounts that can kill wildlife and pets and can even cause illness or death in humans. Algal blooms can generate foul tastes and odors in source and drinking waters and make swimming areas unappealing. Aesthetic problems caused by nearshore accumulations, along with health risks, have hurt local economies through depressed real-estate values and reduced tourism. Scientists surveyed 1,161 U.S. lakes and found that cyanobacteria were the dominant algae in 76 percent of the surveyed locations. Furthermore, 32 percent of lakes contained toxins produced by cyanobacteria. Collaborative research was carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the findings were published in the National Lakes Assessment (NLA). The USGS is technically adept at assessing cyanobacteria—their efforts included creating and applying analytical methods for measuring the concentrations of algal toxins in water. The EPA’s Office of Science and Technology (OST) develops and implements health advisories, along with criteria and regulations for the Nation’s waters. “We use the NLA data to understand the occurrence of microcystins in lakes in the United States when developing the drinking water health advisories,” said Lesley D’Anglada, a senior microbiologist with the OST. “As the only nationwide assessment of cyanotoxin occurrence in surface water systems, the NLA provides us the big picture of the problem in the United States.” While agencies routinely sample cyanobacteria, there are over 275,000 lakes in the continental United States, leaving a large number of lakes unmonitored. As a result, resource allocation is a constant struggle for agency managers. Microcystins, toxins produced by cyanobacteria, were present in 32 percent of studied lakes in the United States. Credit: Jennifer Lanning-Rush, USGS Landsat satellite photos 2016 show algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee pop up during the summer. These blooms can adversely affect drinking water, recreation, tourism, and local wildlife. Credit: Landsat 8 Satellites continuously searching for the characteristic blue-green swirls of cyanobacteria can make decisions easier by prioritizing at-risk waterbodies. Improved information is the goal of a new interagency effort called “CyAN,” or the Cyanobacteria Assessment Network. Since 2015, the USGS has collaborated with the EPA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to transform satellite imagery into information that water managers can use to protect ecological systems and human health from freshwater contamination. A fluorescence microscope image of Microcystis ehrenbergii, one type of potential toxin producing cyanobacteria, from Pinto Lake, CA. The bright green dots in this image reveal cells that have been ruptured indicating a release of genetic material and toxins. Photograph credit: Barry H. Rosen, USGS The interagency team analyzes lake images from multiple satellites, including two USGS-operated Landsat satellites and a new European Space Agency satellite named Sentinel-3. The satellite images are compared with those taken by two decommissioned satellites, including a Landsat satellite originally launched in 1984. “Water managers are typically interested in knowing the frequency of bloom events that occur, what is the extent of those events, and what is the duration,” said Blake Schaeffer, a research physical scientist with the EPA National Exposure Research Laboratory. “We can answer those questions by looking back at historical archives.” These efforts help local water managers craft an optimal prevention strategy for each body of water and monitor success after implementation. At the local level, bloom prevention can include diverting runoff to avoid an influx of nutrients, which act as a buffet for algae, or planting rows of vegetation in areas of high runoff to slow and absorb nutrients. At the national level, the EPA cites both the CyAN Project and the NLA as critical programs for understanding harmful algal blooms and their potential to foul drinking and recreational bodies of water. The CyAN Project is part of the White House’s plan for expanding monitoring and forecasting capabilities to ensure the United States has sustainable water resources. Harmful algal blooms and their toxins can kill wildlife and also pose health risks for humans. Photograph credit: Jennifer Graham, USGS Read more stories about USGS science in action.  #environment

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Federal Ocean Partnership Launches DEEP SEARCH Study of Coral, Canyons, and Seeps Off the Mid- and South Atlantic Coast: Scientists beginning a new four-and-a-half year study of deep-sea coral, canyon, and gas seep ecosystems in the mid- and south Atlantic departed from Norfolk, Va., on September 12. The United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM),and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are collaborating on the study, which will shed light on little-known natural resources of the deep ocean off the United States’ Southeast coast. The research is organized through the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP), with TDI-Brooks International, Inc., as the prime contractor for BOEM, and scientists from USGS and seven academic institutions participating. Areas to be surveyed during the first phase of the Deepwater Atlantic Habitats II study, DEEP SEARCH. Map: USGS Traveling aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces, an interdisciplinary team of researchers will spend about three weeks at sea exploring geological processes and biological features—such as corals and naturally-occurring gas seeps, and the organisms that inhabit them—in deepwater habitats between 30 and 130 miles offshore North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.    Support for the study is shared equally among the three federal agencies either in partner funding or in-kind support. BOEM developed the study concept, funded the competitive contract, and brought together scientific personnel, ships, and equipment from USGS and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER). Temple University’s Erik Cordes is the project manager for TDI-Brooks International, Inc., and lead principal investigator for the multi-year study. Five USGS science teams, led by USGS scientist Amanda Demopoulos, representing various disciplines will collaborate with other partners and researchers from Temple University, the University of Georgia, Nova Southeastern University, Florida State University, Harvey Mudd College, the University of New Hampshire, and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research (NIOZ). ”This study brings together experts who will collaborate to improve our understanding of the distribution, ecology, and underlying geological foundation of sensitive deep-sea environments within this region,” said Demopoulos, who serves as the chief scientist for the first expedition and USGS’ project chief for the multi-year study. “The results will also yield insights into potential marine natural hazards such as landslides and tsunamis, which may have a future impact on sea floor and coastal infrastructure within the Atlantic region. Ultimately, the research will provide the essential baseline information needed to guide management of these deep-sea resources.” This is the first of three planned collaborative deep-sea expeditions in the region over the next three years. The project will provide baseline information needed by each agency. BOEM will obtain new scientific data to inform environmental reviews and offshore energy decisions; USGS and NOAA will gain new scientific understanding of the region’s physical and biological resources. ”While BOEM has been planning this study since 2015, the timing overlaps with the recently announced 2019 – 2024 National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which may or may not result in Atlantic leasing,” said BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank. “No decisions have been made. However, new information from this study could be useful in pre-leasing or post-leasing decisions, such as those affecting sensitive habitats that are the focus of this study.” “NOAA has a long-term interest in exploring and characterizing unknown and poorly understood areas of the global ocean,” said Dr. Alan Leonardi, Director of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. “This study provides the opportunity for deep-water discoveries in the mid- and south Atlantic and will contribute the environmental information needed to address current and emerging science and management issues in the region.” The upcoming expedition will survey Keller Canyon, Pamlico Canyon, Hatteras Canyon, and several unnamed canyons, seeps, and hardbottom features using the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry owned by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Researchers will use a variety of AUV sensors and ship-board instruments to characterize the surface and sub-surface of the sea floor and map it in high resolution. They will collect samples from the water column and seafloor sediment samples and create a database of the seafloor locations of deep-sea communities, including corals, sponges and organisms that inhabit gas seeps. The study will eventually encompass sites between Virginia and Georgia, with future expeditions planned for 2018 and 2019. The media and public will be able to follow the mission, and obtain daily updates through the NOAA/OER website. The study’s acronym will be DEEP SEARCH, standing for Deep Sea Exploration and Research of Coral/Canyon/Seep Habitats. The new project builds on partnerships from the award-winning Mid-Atlantic canyons study that took place from 2011 to 2015 under the NOPP. That study provided important new baseline information about deepwater habitats and species north of the current study’s operating area.   USGS is a multi-disciplinary science organization providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life. For more information on this expedition and other USGS deep-sea coral expeditions, visit the DISCOVRE web page. BOEM’s Environmental Studies Program develops, funds, and manages rigorous scientific research to inform policy decisions regarding the development of energy and mineral resources on the Outer Continental Shelf. Visit our new website, and join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels. Study reports covering more than 40 years and profiles are available through this link: https://www.boem.gov/Environmental-Studies-EnvData/.NOAA's mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Twitter, Facebook and our other social media channels. Visit our news release archive. #environment

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Investigating Lung Disease in Military Veterans: Many veterans turned to America’s top-ranked respiratory hospital, National Jewish Health (NJH), for answers. Doctors at NJH started collecting information from the patients’ personal histories. The doctors ran routine tests on the patients, but all the tests returned negative. When doctors, at last, turned to surgical lung biopsies, they noticed unexplained abnormalities affecting the smaller airways of the lung. “You can’t really treat people unless you have a diagnosis to know what you’re treating,” said Cecile Rose, professor of medicine and medical director of the Center of Excellence on Deployment-Related Lung Disease at NJH. “And you can’t prevent disease unless you know what caused it. So, that prompted us to explore building collaborations with scientists like those at the U.S. Geological Survey, who have a very different perspective.” U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 17 faces a dust storm while constructing a combat outpost in Iraq near the Syrian border in 2008. Photograph credit: Dr. Richard Meehan, NJH Rose recalled the partnership as “serendipitous,” stemming from her time coteaching a course on health and environmental exposure with Geoffrey Plumlee, associate director of environmental health at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Together, NJH and the USGS are trailblazing a new path in the collaborative field of “medical geology.” “USGS scientists had been working with the Fire Department of New York medical folks, looking at mineral particles in [the] lung tissue of World Trade Center responders,” Plumlee explained. He and Rose applied a similar approach to the soldiers’ lung biopsy samples, comparing tissues among previously deployed patients with lung problems, those whose lung issues were unrelated to military deployment, and those with no symptoms. Pulmonologists at NJH identified inflamed and injured tissue, and USGS geologists closely examined the tissue to see what might be there. “A lot of these particles are two micrometers or less, with some as small as 50 nanometers,” explained Heather Lowers, a research geologist and manager of the USGS Denver Microbeam Laboratory. “Hair, for instance, is about 80 micrometers wide. So, these are very small particles.” To glimpse these tiny suspects and identify and count different types of particles, Lowers and her team shot beams of electrons at the particles and recorded the x-rays that bounced off them. In some patients, there were too many particles to count. Then, the team shined lasers over the samples to map where metals and other elements were unusually elevated in the tissue. The particles the USGS team observed fell into three categories: man-made sources, like steel; geological sources, like quartz from sand; and particles that formed within the lung itself. The team’s methods showed precisely where in the lung the contaminants could be found, giving NJH pulmonologists a clearer picture for diagnosis and treatment. Backscattered electron image acquired with a scanning electron microscope of lung tissue (darker areas) and inorganic particulate matter (lighter areas). Credit: USGS Denver Microbeam Laboratory The USGS brought to the project knowledge of high-resolution techniques, mineral sources, and how minerals interact with the body’s fluids over time. The USGS brought to the project knowledge of high-resolution techniques, mineral sources, and how minerals interact with the body’s fluids over time. The NJH team applied that knowledge to human health, using the findings for diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. “The analytical techniques that USGS scientists developed for this purpose had not been previously developed,” Rose said. “It is this kind of collaboration that allows us to cross disciplinary boundaries.” The team anticipates publishing their findings soon but also intends to refine their understanding of the particles causing soldiers’ lung problems. “We are, through this collaboration, in a much better place to get the answers to these fundamental questions around cause and mechanism,” Rose said. “I think science in this day and age really requires cross-disciplinary collaboration.” By working together, two seemingly unrelated groups—National Jewish Health and the U.S. Geological Survey—took steps to solve an environmental and public health crisis, an accomplishment that will help affected veterans receive the treatment they need. Dr. Richard Meehan, Battalion Surgeon for Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 17, taking air quality measurements during a dust storm at Al Asad Air base in western Iraq. Photograph credit: Dr. Richard Meehan, NJH Read more stories about USGS science in action.  #environment

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Pesticides Prevalent in Midwestern Streams: More than 180 pesticides and their by-products were detected in small streams throughout 11 Midwestern states, some at concentrations likely to harm aquatic insects, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey. The mixtures of pesticides are more complex than previously reported by the USGS—94 pesticides and 89 pesticide byproducts were detected. On average, 52 pesticide compounds were identified in each stream. At least one pesticide in at least half of the 100 streams sampled exceeded a threshold predicted to cause harm to aquatic insects and other stream organisms, ranging from acute effects—like death after a short-term exposure—to chronic effects—like longer-term impairments to reproduction and development. Two to four pesticides exceeded that threshold in more than a quarter of the streams. Aquatic insects, like mayfly and stonefly larvae, are critical to stream health because they are an essential link in the aquatic food web. Pesticides were not measured at levels predicted to be toxic to fish in 95 of the 100 streams tested. Potential impacts on human health were not assessed because the small streams sampled in agricultural and urban areas are unlikely to be used as sources of drinking water. At least one pesticide in more than half of the 100 streams sampled in the Midwest exceeded a toxicity threshold predicted to cause harm to aquatic insects and other stream organisms, ranging from acute effects (mortality after short-term exposure) in 12 streams to chronic effects (longer term impairments to reproduction and development) in 41 streams. (Public domain.) “About 150 million pounds of pesticides are applied annually in the Midwestern U.S.,” said Lisa Nowell, USGS research chemist and lead scientist for the study. “Understanding which pesticides are occurring at levels potentially toxic to aquatic life, and where they occur, is crucial to informing management decisions.” While numerous pesticides were detected at low levels, only a few—atrazine, acetochlor, metolachlor, imidacloprid, fipronil, and organophosphate insecticides—were predicted to be major contributors to toxicity. The first three are widely used agricultural herbicides, and the latter three are insecticides used in both residential and agricultural settings. This is one of the most extensive assessments of pesticides in streams to date: 1,200 samples were collected at 100 Midwest streams over a 12-week period during the 2013 growing season and analyzed for 228 pesticide compounds. Numbers of streams tested in each state include: Illinois (19 sites), Indiana (15), Iowa (17), Kansas (3), Kentucky (3), Minnesota (7), Missouri (14), Nebraska (8), Ohio (7), South Dakota (1), and Wisconsin (6). This study is the first in a series of five regional stream quality assessments (RSQA) that also includes the Southeast, Pacific Northwest, Northeast, and California. To learn more about the comprehensive Midwest streams assessment and the other regional assessments visit the USGS RSQA website. The study, “Complex mixtures of dissolved pesticides show potential aquatic toxicity in a synoptic study of Midwestern U.S. streams,” is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. #environment
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