Toxic substances are chemicals and metals that can cause serious illness or death. They may be poisonous, carcinogenic (cancer-causing) or harmful in other ways to living things. Pesticides, automobile fluids like antifreeze, oil or grease, and metals such as mercury or lead have all been found to pollute estuaries. These substances can enter an estuary through industrial discharges, yard runoff, streets, agricultural lands, and storm drains.
Once consumed by plants and animals, some toxic substances can accumulate in these organisms' tissues. This process is called biomagnification. The insecticide DDT, and the metal mercury, are known to progressively accumulate or build up in the tissues of organisms as they make their way from the bottom of the food web (algae, shrimp, oysters, fish) to the top (osprey, eagles, bears, people).
Sometimes, toxic substances become attached to sediments (sand or mud) that flow down rivers and get deposited in estuaries. Toxic substances that enter the estuary this way often contaminate bottom-dwelling animals like oysters or clams, making them a serious health risk to people who eat them. (USEPA, 1993; USEPA, date unknown).