NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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How to Test for Toxicity

Oil washes onto a beach.

Oil washes onto the beach on the day of the spill at Refugio State Beach, May 19, 2015. Image credit: NOAA

What is toxicity? Most definitions would explain it as the degree to which a substance is poisonous.

Knowing a substance’s toxic levels is particularly important to federal agencies that use the information to test potential risks posed to people’s health and to the environment.

So how do scientists know how toxic something is and whether or not that substance—be it oil, chemical treating agents or toxic metals—will be toxic when introduced into marine or coastal waters?

The basic tool for determining toxicity of substances to marine and aquatic organisms is the toxicity test.

In its simplest form, toxicity testing is taking healthy organisms from a container of clean water and placing into one containing the same water with a known concentration of a pollutant. The observer then watches to see if, and when, it appears to become lethargic, sick or dies, and comparing those results to the organisms left in the clean water.

Complexities of toxicity testing

The testing process for determining toxicity in marine environments is detailed, rigorous, and time consuming.

There must be containers of both the uncontaminated (clean) water (called a control) and the pollutant-treated water; a bare minimum is five containers of each. The reason for the replications is the concept of variability. Given five test organisms, such as a fish species, there will be a range of sensitivity among them.

Having multiple testing samples allows scientists to determine the level toxic to the average organism and the level toxic to the most sensitive organism. Having more than one of the same organism in each test container is required; ten is standard.

It’s easy to see how a toxicity test grows in complexity: 50 specimens for the controls (10 in each of five replicate containers) and 50 more in the five treated containers (10 in each of five replicate treatment containers). That’s 100 organisms.

But then, to find out what concentrations of the toxicant are safe and which are not, there needs to be at least five different treatment concentrations, each with five containers and each container with 10 test organisms. Now we’re dealing with 600 test organisms and 60 test containers.

Observations over time

The next step in a toxicity test is recording the changes in the organisms over time. A standard observation period is daily, every 24 hours for at least 4 days (96 hours). For each interval of time, observations must be recorded for:

  • Each of the treatment and control containers
  • The numbers of organisms that are alive and normal
  • The number not doing well
  • The number dead

Then apply a statistical procedure to estimate the median concentration of the toxin that maimed or killed half the organisms and write up the results. The key is to write it up with enough information so that someone else can exactly duplicate the test.

Quality control against bias

Added to all this, the design of a toxicity test must include a number of features to insure there is no bias in the results.

  • The containers must be lined up randomly and given codes so that the researcher doesn’t know until the experiment is over which containers had which concentrations.
  • Water quality must be monitored to ensure that temperatures and oxygen remain the same in all containers.
  • Once the data is collected, the researcher must calculate the median lethal concentration, meaning the concentration of toxin that would kill half the test population.
  • Further, it is important not to rely only on one experiment. The whole thing should be repeated once or twice more to be convinced that the first effort was not a fluke.

Finally, the researcher must write a report that not only describes the experiment and results, but also puts them in context with similar data from other studies reported in the scientific literature.

Using toxicity data

These are the steps scientists go through to determine if a substance is toxic and at what concentration levels.

In reality, today, toxicity testing is even more complicated and detailed. There are now many measures of toxicity other than death or sickness: for example, many tests done today look at “endpoints” such as effects on enzyme systems, or changes in animal behavior or decreases in egg production.

The final use of toxicity data is comparison with concentrations measured or expected in the field. If the concentrations of a pollutant in the field are below any of the concentrations deemed “toxic” in the laboratory, it may well be that the pollutant is not a problem. If concentrations in the field are higher, then there is cause for concern.

 

By Alan Mearns, Ph.D. Mearns is an ecologist and senior staff scientist with the Emergency Response Division.


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8 Ways to Keep the Earth Clean

Litter on beach.

Litter such as plastic detergent bottles, crates, buoys, combs, and water bottles blanket Kanapou Bay, on the Island of Kaho’olawe in Hawaii. This region is a hot-spot for marine debris accumulation. Image credit: NOAA

By: Amanda Laverty, Knauss fellow with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program

Earth Day is just around the corner and it’s the perfect time to get involved and support efforts working toward a clean environment and healthy planet. We want to remind ourselves to make these efforts throughout the year, so Earth Day is a great time to start.

This year, let’s challenge ourselves as consumers to make better daily choices so that we can collectively lessen our impact on the planet! It only takes a few consistent choices to develop new sustainable and earth-friendly habits.

Here are a few easy and effective ways you can choose to reduce your daily impact and make a world of difference:

  1. Bring a bag. Remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery store or for any other shopping activities to reduce consumption of disposable bags.
  2. Invest in a reusable water bottle. Acquiring a reusable water bottle would not only greatly reduce the amount of single-use plastic you use, but it would also save you money in the long run! If you’re concerned about the quality of your tap water, consider using a water filter.
  3. Bring your own reusable cup. Think about how many disposable cups are used every day in just your local coffee shop. Bringing a mug for your morning coffee can reduce the amount of waste you produce annually. Imagine how much waste we could reduce if we all made this simple daily change!
  4. Refuse single-use items. Take note on how often you rely on single-use items and choose to replace them with more sustainable versions. Refusing plastic straws and disposable cutlery when you go out and bringing your own containers for leftovers are a few ways you can start today.
  5. Avoid products with microbeads. Facial scrubs and beauty products containing plastic microbeads were banned in the United States in 2015, but won’t be fully phased out until 2019. Read the labels when purchasing products and opt for ones that contain natural scrubbing ingredients like salt or sugar.
  6. Shop in bulk. Consider the product-to-packaging ratio when purchasing items and choose larger containers instead of multiple smaller ones. When you have the option, also consider purchasing package-free foods and household goods.
  7. Make sure your waste goes to the right place. Do your best to ensure that the waste you dispose of ends up where it should. Recycle the materials that are recyclable in your area and make sure to reduce the likelihood of your garbage ending up in the environment by keeping a lid on your trash can when it’s outside.
  8. Compost. Composting at home reduces the volume of garbage sent to landfills and reduces the chance of some products becoming marine debris.

These are just a few ways that we can apply our Earth Day intentions to our everyday lives. By doing our part to work toward a sustainable and debris-free planet, we’ll also be providing others with inspiration and a good example to follow. As individuals we have the potential to make a big difference and together we can change the world.

This blog first appeared on the Marine Debris blog. Learn more about NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and its mission to investigate and prevent the adverse impacts of marine debris.

Addressing Marine Debris in the Pacific Northwest: Harnessing the Power of Art

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Check out this amazing art!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Like the rest of the country, the Pacific Northwest is unfortunately not immune to the impacts of marine debris. Luckily, there are many efforts in this region to address the marine debris issue, one of which focuses on the power of art.

Washed Ashore, an organization based in Oregon, works to prevent marine debris by raising awareness through art. After collecting debris on beaches and then cleaning and sorting it by color, the Washed Ashore group creates large and intricate sculptures made exclusively of marine debris. By building and displaying these sculptures, which mostly feature animals impacted by debris, this project aims to reach a broad audience to raise awareness of our connection to the debris issue and to inspire changes in our habits as consumers. Many of these sculptures now travel around the country as part of traveling exhibits, reaching broad audiences throughout the nation.

In 2014, Washed…

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From Toxic Dump to Wetland in Florida

Wetland bordered with plants.

Restored Raleigh Street Dump site. Image credit: NOAA

How do you return a  dumpsite to a natural area with productive wetlands? With the hard work of scientists, and federal and state officials.

The Raleigh Street Dump Site is located in an industrial area of Tampa, east of McKay Bay. The low-lying land was once pocked with sinkholes and littered with battery casings, furnace slag, trash, and construction debris dumped at the site from 1977 to 1991.

By 2009, the level of pollution was dire enough to land it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List, slating it for cleanup under the Superfund law. Years of illegal dumping had left the area filled with contaminated soil, sediment, and groundwater.

EPA investigations at the site found a number of chemical contaminants posing an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment, including oil-related compounds and heavy metals such as antimony, arsenic, and lead.

Cleanup and restoration activities at the Raleigh Street Dump Site were comprehensive and involved replacing contaminated soils with clean soils, removing contaminated sediments, planting grass, restoring wetland areas, and reducing the concentration of contaminants in the groundwater.

NOAA has worked closely with EPA over the years to ensure the cleanup at Raleigh Street Dump Site was protective of the environment. By the end, restoration actually resulted in an increase of wetland area at the site, more than doubling it to 2.6 acres.

The restoration work done at the Raleigh Street site is part of a larger overall conservation effort in a region that for decades had been experiencing environmental decline.

In April 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 presented the Excellence in Site Re-Use Award. The ceremony included recognition of NOAA’s scientific work over the years on the cleanup and restoration.


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Meet the New CAMEO Chemicals Mobile App

Man in rpotective mask with fire in background.

Used by firefighters and other emergency responders, our hazardous chemicals database, CAMEO Chemicals, is now available as a mobile app. Image credit: U.S. Air Force

The joint NOAA-Environmental Protection Agency hazardous chemicals database is now available as a mobile app.

Named CAMEO Chemicals, the database has information on thousands of chemicals and hazardous substances, including response recommendations and predictions about explosions, toxic fumes, and other hazards. Firefighters and emergency planners around the world use CAMEO Chemicals to help them prepare for and respond to emergencies.

CAMEO Chemicals was already available as a desktop program, website, and mobile-friendly website. You can download the new app to view key chemical and response information on smartphones and tablets. Once downloaded, you can look up chemicals and predict reactivity without an internet connection—making it a valuable tool for emergency responders on the go. With an internet connection, you can access even more resources, like the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards and International Chemical Safety Cards.

Image of smartphones and tablets.

Our hazardous chemicals database, CAMEO Chemicals, is now available as a mobile app. Image credit: NOAA

The app is packed with features, including:

  • Search by name, Chemical Abstracts Service number, or United Nations/North American number to find chemicals of interest in the database of thousands of hazardous substances.
  • Find physical properties, health hazards, air and water hazards, recommendations for firefighting, first aid, and spill response, and regulatory information.
  • Predict potential hazards that could arise if chemicals were to mix.
  • Quickly access additional resources like the U.S. Coast Guard Chemical Hazards Response Information System manual, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Pocket Guide, and International Chemical Safety Cards.
  • Find response information from the Emergency Response Guidebook  and shipping information from the Hazardous Materials Table. Emergency Response Guidebook PDFs are available in English, Spanish, and French.
  • Save and share information with colleagues.

The mobile app is part of the CAMEO® software suite, a set of programs offered at no cost by NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and EPA’s Office of Emergency Management. This suite of programs was designed to assist emergency planners and responders to anticipate and respond to chemical spills.

You can download the new CAMEO Chemicals app in the Apple App store or Google Play Store.

 

Kristen Faiferlick of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.


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Join a Cleanup this Earth Day

Marine Debris has created an amazing list of cleanup events for Earth Day!

NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Kids and a chaperone on a beach with reflective gear and bags of debris and a city in the background. Join a cleanup near you this Earth Day! (Photo Credit: Stepping Out Stepping In)

It’s April and that means that Earth Day is right around the corner! This year, Earth Day is on Saturday, April 22nd, and it’s a great opportunity to join in the fight against marine debris and prevent trash from entering our ocean, waterways, and Great Lakes. There are lots of cleanup events happening on and around Earth Day; make sure you’re prepared by knowing what cleanups are happening in your area! Here are a few to get you started:

Alabama:

Date: April 15-22; Host:Alabama PALS; Location: throughout Alabama

 California:

Date: April 22; Host: California State Parks; Location: sites throughout California

 Date: April 22; Host:City of Oakland; Location: sites in Oakland, CA

Date: April 22; Host: I Love a Clean San Diego; Location: sites in San Diego…

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Closing Down Damage Assessment After Deepwater Horizon

Shelves filled with jars.

The plankton archive contains over 130,000 samples from 19 different surveys conducted as part of the natural resources damage assessment. Plankton archive located at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Image credit: NOAA

The environmental toll from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster was enormous, demanding a massive deployment of people and materials to measure the adverse effects.

Federal and state agencies worked quickly to scale up the emergency response, clean up the spill, mount a large-scale effort to assess the injuries to wildlife and other natural resources, and record how these lost resources adversely affected the public.

When the cleanup was finished, and the injuries were determined, another challenge came: NOAA and other agencies had to close down the largest damage assessment field operation in the nation’s history.

During five years of field studies assessing the injuries to natural resources, more than one hundred thousand samples were collected.

Instead of discarding the samples once the assessment was over, and the BP settlement was completed, it made more sense to find other uses for the samples, and the valuable laboratory, field, and office equipment attained during the assessment work. In many cases, the cost of finding new homes for samples and equipment was cheaper than disposal.

Repurposing samples and equipment: the work goes on

Shutting down the assessment operations involved clearing out laboratories and warehouses filled with samples, field equipment, and supplies.

In most instances, only a portion of each sample was needed for analysis and by the end of 2015, NOAA had an extensive trove of environmental samples.

Recognizing that many research scientists might put these samples to good use, NOAA made the materials available by publishing announcements in professional society newsletters. After receiving about one hundred inquiries, staff and contractors began distributing more than 5,000 samples.

Additionally, some sample collections were archived in publicly available repositories, with other historical and scientifically valuable collections. Thousands of samples of plankton, fish, and other organisms collected during post-spill trawls in Gulf waters went to a NOAA archive in Stennis, Mississippi.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. received rare deep-sea corals. Later this year the National Marine Mammal Tissue Bank will host thousands of samples from species of dolphins and other marine mammals found dead after the oil spill.

Universities across the United States received samples for research. Sediment samples sent to Florida State University in Tallahassee are supporting studies on the long-term fate of Deepwater Horizon oil deposited on Gulf beaches and in nearshore environments.

Researchers at Jacksonville University in Florida are using samples to compare the weathering of tar balls found submerged to tar balls those stranded on land. Additionally, researchers at Texas A&M University obtained samples of the spilled oil for studies of bacteria that biodegrade oil.

Graphic with gloved hands pouring liquid from sample jar into beaker and numbers of samples, results, and studies resulting from NOAA efforts.

Finding new homes for scientific instruments and other equipment

Field samples were not the only items distributed to advance oil spill science. NOAA shipped hundreds of large and small pieces of equipment to universities and other research partners to aid ongoing investigations about the effects of oil spills on the environment, and the ongoing monitoring of the Gulf environment.

Repurposed supplies and equipment found a second life at many institutions including the:

  • University of Miami
  • NOVA Southeastern University
  • Dauphin Island Sea Lab
  • University of Southern Mississippi
  • University of South Florida
  • Louisiana State University
  • Texas A & M
  • Smithsonian Institution

In addition to laboratory equipment, some university researchers received practical items such as anchors, battery packs, buoys, forceps, freezer packs, glassware, preservatives such as alcohol and formalin, and thermometers.

NOAA coordinated with BP to recover and repurpose thousands of items BP purchased for the assessment. While clearing out office buildings and trailers, NOAA staff identified and requested valuable pieces of laboratory and field equipment, and other supplies. Some of these items, such as microscopes, initially cost tens of thousands of dollars.

First responders from NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard also received field safety equipment including:

  • Personal floatation devices
  • Safety goggles
  • Pallets of nitrile gloves
  • Lightning detectors
  • Sorbent boom

All of which support preparedness for future incidents.

Countless NOAA staff rose to the enormous challenges of responding to, assessing impacts from, and restoring the natural resources injured by the Deepwater Horizon incident. This work continues, assisted by the creative reuse and repurposing of materials across the country to support ongoing efforts to advance oil spill science and improve preparedness for future spills.

Read more about and the work of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and partners in responding to the spill, documenting the environmental damage, and holding BP accountable for restoring injured resources:

 

Greg Baker, Rob Ricker, and Kathleen Goggin of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration contributed to this article.