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Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5004

Prepared in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game,
Division of Ecological Restoration, Riverways Program

Concentrations, Loads, and Sources of Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Neponset River and Neponset River Estuary, Eastern Massachusetts

By Robert F. Breault

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (17.8 MB)Abstract

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are known to contaminate the Neponset River, which flows through parts of Boston, Massachusetts, and empties into the Neponset River Estuary, an important fish-spawning area. The river is dammed and impassable to fish. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, Division of Ecological Restoration, Riverways Program, collected, analyzed, and interpreted PCB data from bottom-sediment, water, and (or) fish-tissue samples in 2002, 2004-2006. Samples from the Neponset River and Neponset River Estuary were analyzed for 209 PCB congeners, PCB homologs, and Aroclors. In order to better assess the overall health quality of river-bottom sediments, sediment samples were also tested for concentrations of 31 elements.

PCB concentrations measured in the top layers of bottom sediment ranged from 28 nanograms per gram (ng/g) just upstream of the Mother Brook confluence to 24,900 ng/g measured in Mother Brook. Concentrations of elements in bottom sediment were generally higher than background concentrations and higher than levels considered toxic to benthic organisms according to freshwater sediment-quality guidelines defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Concentrations of dissolved PCBs in water samples collected from the Neponset River (May 13, 2005 to April 28, 2006) averaged about 9.2 nanograms per liter (ng/L) (annual average of monthly values); however, during the months of August (about 16.5 ng/L) and September (about 15.6 ng/L), dissolved PCB concentrations were greater than 14 ng/L, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's freshwater continuous chronic criterion for aquatic organisms. Concentrations of PCBs in white sucker (fillets and whole fish) were all greater than 2,000 ng/g wet wt, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's guideline for safe consumption of fish: PCB concentrations measured in fish-tissue samples collected from the Tileston and Hollingsworth and Walter Baker Impoundments were 3,490 and 2,450 ng/g wet wt (filleted) and 6,890 and 4,080 ng/g wet wt (whole fish). Total PCB-congener concentrations measured in the whole bodies of estuarine bait fish (common mummichog) averaged 708 ng/g wet wt.

PCBs that pass from the Neponset River to the Neponset River Estuary are either dissolved or associated with particulate matter (including living and nonliving material) suspended in the water column. A small proportion of PCBs may also be transported as part of the body burden of fish and wildlife. During the period May 13, 2005 to April 28, 2006, about 5,100 g (3.8 L or 1 gal) of PCBs were transported from the Neponset River to the Neponset River Estuary. Generally, about one-half of these PCBs were dissolved in the water column and the other half were associated with particulate matter; however, the proportion that was either dissolved or particulate varied seasonally. Most PCBs transported from the river to the estuary are composed of four or fewer chlorine atoms per biphenyl molecule.

The data suggest that widespread PCB contamination of the lower Neponset River originated from Mother Brook, a Neponset River tributary, starting sometime around the early 1950s or earlier. In 1955, catastrophic dam failure caused by flooding likely released PCB-contaminated sediment downstream and into the Neponset River Estuary. PCBs from this source area likely continued to be released after the flood and during subsequent rebuilding of downstream dams. Today (2007), PCBs are mostly trapped behind these dams; however, some PCBs either diffuse or are entrained back into the water column and are transported downstream by river water into the estuary or volatilize into the atmosphere. In addition to the continuing release of PCBs from historically contaminated bottom sediment, PCBs are still (2007) originating from source areas along Mother and Meadow Brook as well as other sources along the river and Boston Harbor. PCBs from the river (transported by river water) and from the harbor (transported by tidal action) appear to have contaminated parts of the Neponset River Estuary.

First posted June 8, 2011

Revised June 24, 2014

For additional information, contact:
Office Chief, New England Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Massachusetts-Rhode Island Office
10 Bearfoot Road
Northborough, MA 01532
(508) 490–5000

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Suggested citation:

Breault, R.F., 2011, Concentrations, loads, and sources of polychlorinated biphenyls, Neponset River and Neponset River Estuary, eastern Massachusetts (ver. 1.1., June 2014): U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5004, 143 p.,

ISSN 2328-0328 (online)





PCB Chemistry, Use, and Environmental Presence

Study Design

Mathematical Analysis of PCB-Congener Data

Concentrations of PCBs and Other Constituents in Water, Sediment, and Fish

Loads of PCBs from the Neponset River to the Neponset River Estuary

Loads of PCBs through the Braided-Channel Area

Sources of PCBs


References Cited

Appendix 1. Sampling and Sample Processing Techniques

Appendix 2. Chemical Analysis of Water, Sediment, and Fish

Appendix 3. Quality Assurance and Quality Control

Appendix 4. Polychlorinated Biphenyl Masses Measured in Water Samples

Appendix 5. Polychlorinated Biphenyl Masses Measured in Commercially Available Aroclors

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