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Contaminants in the Environment

Oil on the beach.

Oil impacts to the beach environment of Grand Isle, Louisiana. Oil and other chemicals can get into sediments, impacting large coastal areas, threatening human health, and reducing the economic well being of regions that depend on a healthy coastal environment.

Our ocean and coastal areas provide us with a lot – from food, places to boat and swim, and wildlife to enjoy…the list goes on. So when these areas become polluted and unhealthy, it isn’t just bad for the environment, it’s also bad for us. At NOS, scientists, economists, and other experts are busy monitoring, assessing, and working to clean up contaminants in the environment.

The source

A wide range of chemicals can contaminate our water, land, or air, impacting the environment and our health. Most contaminants enter the environment from industrial and commercial facilities; oil and chemical spills; non-point sources such as roads, parking lots, and storm drains; and wastewater treatment plants and sewage systems. Many hazardous waste sites and industrial facilities have been contaminated for decades and continue to affect the environment.

The impact

Contaminants in the environment can look and smell pretty nasty, but their impacts go beyond just aesthetics. Some pollutants resist breakdown and accumulate in the food chain. These pollutants can be consumed or absorbed by fish and wildlife, which in turn may be eaten by us. Chemicals can also get into sediments, impacting large coastal areas, threatening human health, and reducing the economic well being of regions that depend on a healthy coastal environment.

Evaluation tools

Being able to clean up and restore areas that have been impacted by contaminants requires tools tailored to the needs of specific regions. NOS has developed a range of tools to help coastal communities meet their needs. For example, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA worked with partners to launch the Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) Gulf Response, an online mapping tool that delivers environmental resource managers the near-real-time information and data necessary to make informed decisions for environmental response. The site uses the Environmental Response Management Application, a web-based geographic information system platform developed by NOAA and the University of New Hampshire’s Coastal Response Research Center. NOS also offers a number of assessment tools and guidance to help coastal decision makers understand the implications of contaminated sediments.

Testing toxicity

Harmful chemical pollution and excess nutrient runoff are serious threats to the coastal environment. NOS scientists are conducting research to help detect and predict how this pollution will impact coastal resources. For example, at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, scientists are evaluating the effects of single contaminants and contaminant mixtures, conducting toxicity-testing with single species, and conducting research in controlled conditions to assess contaminant impacts on biological communities. Scientists are also looking at how environmental and human stressors impact bottlenose dolphin populations.

Responding to contaminants

When contaminants threaten or harm aquatic species, make them unsafe to eat, or degrade their habitat, NOS experts work with partners to evaluate risks and injuries, develop strategies to reduce contaminant loads, and reduce the risk to species. The experts also monitor the effectiveness of cleanup actions and design and implement projects to restore natural resources. At larger waste sites and after oil spills, NOS scientists and economists conduct natural resource damage assessments to determine the nature and extent of harm to natural resources and restoration necessary to bring the resources to a healthier state. NOS works with the parties responsible for the contamination to ensure that injured coastal and marine resources are restored.

Nonpoint pollution

When pollution comes from a source that can't be tied to a specific location, we call it “nonpoint source pollution.” This kind of pollution occurs when leaking septic tanks or stormwater runoff that has picked up things like sediment, fertilizer, pet waste, or oil drain into streams and rivers that empty into our estuaries and coastal waters. To address this polluted runoff, NOAA and the Environmental Protection Agency jointly administer the Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program. Under the program, all states and territories with approved coastal zone management programs are required to develop and implement coastal programs to reduce the amount of nonpoint source pollution entering our waterways.

What you can do

Did you know that YOU could be contributing to some of the pollution that reaches our waterways? There are many things all of us can do to reduce contaminants in our environment, including:

  • Plant grass, trees, and shrubs in bare areas to reduce and absorb runoff, reduce erosion, and improve habitat.
  • Properly dispose of pet waste, motor oil and household chemicals.
  • Use fertilizers and pesticides sparingly on lawns and gardens.
  • Keep trash out of storm drains, where it will clog up the drain or end up in the nearest stream or lake.
  • Organize neighborhood cleanups.
  • Maintain your car to prevent oil leaks.
  • Consider purchasing and using less-toxic household chemicals.
  • Recycle plastic, glass, and paper.
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More Information

Did you know?

Eighty percent of pollution to the marine environment comes from the land. One of the biggest sources is called nonpoint source pollution, which occurs as a result of runoff.

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