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Sediment Quality in the North Coastal Basin of Massachusetts, 2003

By Robert F. Breault, Mary S. Ashman, and Douglas Heath

Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5110


The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, completed a reconnaissance-level study of bottom-sediment quality in selected lakes, rivers, and estuaries in the North Coastal Basin of Massachusetts. Bottom-sediment grab samples were collected from 20 sites in the North River, Lake Quannapowitt, Saugus River, Mill River, Shute Brook, Sea Plane Basin, Pines River, and Bear Creek. The samples were tested for various types of potentially harmful contaminants— including 33 elements, 17 polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), 22 organochlorine pesticides, and 7 polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) mixtures (Aroclors)—to benthic organisms (bottom-dwelling) and humans. The results were compared among sampling sites, to background concentrations, and to concen-trations measured in other urban rivers, and sediment-quality guidelines were used to predict toxicity at the sampling sites to benthic organisms and humans. Because there are no standards for human toxicity for aquatic sediment, standards for contaminated upland soil were used.

Contaminant concentrations measured in sediment collected from the North Coastal Basin generally were equal to or greater than concentrations in sediment from uncontaminated rivers throughout New England. Contaminants in North Coastal Basin sediment with elevated concentrations (above back-ground levels) included arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc, some of the PAHs, dichlorodiphenyltrichloro-ethane (DDT) and its metabolites, and dieldrin. No PCBs were measured above the detection limits. Measured concentrations of arsenic, chromium, and lead were also generally greater than those measured in other urban rivers throughout the conter-minous United States. With one exception (arsenic), local con-centrations measured in sediment samples collected from the North Coastal Basin were lower than concentrations measured in sediment collected from two of three urban rivers draining to Boston Harbor.

The probable toxicity to benthic organisms ranged from about 33 to 91 percent across the study area. Of the elements analyzed, antimony, arsenic, beryllium, and lead exceeded the soil standards for risk to human health. Of the PAHs analyzed, four also exceeded soil standards. Organochlorine pesticide concentrations, however, were not high enough relative to the soil standards to pose a risk to human health. Some trace element and some organic compound concentrations in bottom sediment may be toxic to aquatic organisms and may pose a risk to human health.




Purpose and Scope

Previous Investigations

Study Methods

Sample Collection

Chemical Analysis

Data Analysis

Bias and Variability

Sediment Quality

Sediment Quality at Sediment-Grab Sampling Locations

Effects of Human Activities on Sediment Quality

Comparison of North Coastal Basin Sediment Quality to that of Other Urban Rivers

Toxicity of Bottom Sediments

Benthic Organisms




References Cited


1. Map showing the North Coastal Basin sediment-grab sampling locations, Massachusetts

2, 3. Graphs showing:
2. Concentrations of selected contaminants in bottom sediment collected from the North Coastal Basin and from other urban rivers
3. Sediment toxicity to Hyalella azteca and Chironomus spp. in the North Coastal Basin, estimating using consensus-based freshwater sediment- quality guidelines


1. Inorganic element concentrations measured in sediment-grab samples collected from the North Coastal Basin, Massachusetts

2. Grain-size distribution measured in sediment-grab samples collected from the North Coastal Basin

3. Organic compound concentrations measured in sediment grab samples collected from the North Coastal Basin


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Report (2.2 MB)--29 pages

The citation for this report, in USGS format, is as follows:

Breault, R.F., Ashman, M.S., and Heath, Douglas, 2004, Sediment quality in the North Coastal Basin of Massachusetts, 2003: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5110, 25 p.

 For more information about USGS activities in Massachusetts-Rhode Island District, visit the USGS Massachusetts-Rhode Island Home Page.

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Last modified: Thursday, December 01 2016, 08:07:23 PM
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