Contaminants of emerging concern in the Great Lakes: Science to inform management practices for protecting the health and integrity of wildlife populations from adverse effects: GLRI action plan I, focus area 1, goal 5

Group Progress Report EPA/600/R-22/057
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
By: , and 



Executive Summary: Under Action Plan I (2010-2014) of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), Federal and Academic partners began an investigation of the presence and distribution of contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in the Great Lakes and potential impacts on fish and wildlife. The term CECs is applied to a broad range of chemicals that are currently in use but for which we currently lack good understanding of whether fish, wildlife, or humans are being exposed and/or whether negative health or environmental effects are expected if exposure occurs. Pharmaceuticals, personal care products, flame retardants, many current use pesticides, and poly- and perfluorinated chemicals are some well-known groups of CECs, but there is no definitive or comprehensive list that can be used to support the management of CECs to reduce impacts on the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Four overarching goals were identified for this collaborative investigation:

1. Evaluate the sources, occurrence, and distribution of CECs across the Great Lakes Basin.

2. Examine associations between the distribution of CECs and land-use patterns.

3. Review both scientific literature and field-generated data to determine the potential for CECs to cause adverse effects on Great Lakes fish and wildlife populations.

4. Develop efficient strategies to survey and/or monitor for threats that CECs may pose in order to take effective management actions before those threats evolve into large scale impacts on Great Lakes ecosystems or the services they provide.

Achievement of these goals ensures progress towards Focus Area 1: Toxic Substances and Areas of Concern from GLRI Action Plan I, Goal 5: “The health and integrity of wildlife populations and habitat are protected from adverse chemical and biological effects associated with the presence of toxic substances in the Great Lakes Basin”.

This large-scale research effort was comprised of individual and collaborative projects from multiple federal agencies and academic institutions, involving over 85 investigators, and overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5, Great Lakes National Program Office. Partners include the United States Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Saint Cloud State University, the U.S. EPA Office of Research and Development, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Key findings:

1. Contaminants of emerging concern were found throughout the monitored Great Lakes tributaries, but types and concentrations vary in association with regional land use. CECs were detected in nearly all samples collected. The type and concentration of the specific contaminants detected varied considerably among field sites and in association with land use type, such as urban, agricultural, wetland, 2 or forest. Contaminants were detected in the water column, sediment, and tissues of all species surveyed in the current work (mussels, aquatic insects, fish, and insect-eating birds).

2. There were over 20 contaminants for which CEC concentrations approached or exceeded those reported to cause toxicity in laboratory experiments. This was based on detection in water, sediments and or biota at one or more field sites. These contaminants represent compounds that warrant further investigation and monitoring with respect to potential impacts in certain areas of the Great Lakes basin. Based on the present investigation, compounds of greatest concern include: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, associated with oil-based products and combustion of organic matter; atrazine, an herbicide; dichlorvos, an insecticide; and ibuprofen and venlafaxine, both pharmaceuticals.

3. Results suggest that mixtures of CECs presently found in most Great Lakes tributary locations surveyed may elicit subtle biological effects, but likely are not, alone, causing obvious detriment to current communities of fish and wildlife. CECs detected in the Great Lakes were associated with subtle biological effects like changes in gene expression, altered circulating glucose, etc. in both wild-caught and laboratory-reared organisms. These effects were generally not indicative of reproductive failure or mortality. However, the effects may have more serious implications when combined with other sources of stress like habitat degradation, changing climate conditions, and competition with invasive species. Due to limited historical data, it is unknown whether severe CEC-related impacts have already affected aquatic communities in waterbodies that have received long-term inputs of these contaminants. Likewise, under Action Plan I, biological effects were not necessarily evaluated at the sites where CEC concentrations exceeding laboratory toxicity thresholds were detected. As a result, strategic, ongoing surveillance and monitoring of CECs is warranted.

This collaborative investigation resulted in new tools, approaches, and data that can be used to inform and support the management of CECs to reduce their impacts on Great Lakes natural resources. The following products of this research effort are available through or by contacting the investigators (see technical chapters found in Appendices A-F):

1. Database of CEC occurrence and concentrations in US tributary streams. The database includes CEC detections in water, sediment, and fish and wildlife tissues, and represents the most comprehensive survey of CECs in the Great Lakes Region.

2. Synopses of results and key findings. Integrated summaries of results, conclusions, and management implications of the CEC research are available through reports, topical fact sheets, and presentations.

3. Technical publications: This collaborative research effort has resulted in over 50 peer-reviewed publications, agency reports, and data releases that can be of use to resource managers, the scientific community, and members of the public.

4. Innovative tools. Innovative monitoring devices, sampling equipment, conceptual frameworks, and software applications were developed over the course of this 3 research. These tools are transferable to stakeholders via internet accessibility or via specifications, instructions, and demonstration detailed in technical publications.

Hypotheses to guide CECs research under Action Plan II. Findings from 2010-2014 were used to guide further research in 2015-2018 for basin-wide surveillance of CECs and for sites warranting further study of potential biological impacts of CECs. Additional surveillance included both evaluation of additional classes of contaminants and expanded lists for chemical classes shown to be of greatest concern. Mixtures of some of the most frequently detected contaminants were also tested in laboratory studies to understand whether long term exposures to multiple contaminants may result in effects not evident from uncontrolled, short-term field experiments.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Contaminants of emerging concern in the Great Lakes: Science to inform management practices for protecting the health and integrity of wildlife populations from adverse effects: GLRI action plan I, focus area 1, goal 5
Series title Group Progress Report
Series number EPA/600/R-22/057
DOI 10.23645/epacomptox.21044455.v1
Year Published 2022
Language English
Publisher U.S. EPA
Contributing office(s) Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, Upper Midwest Water Science Center
Description vii, 160 p,
Country Canada, United States
Other Geospatial Great Lakes
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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