Chemical Contamination

An osprey in its nest in the James River right next to a chemical plant. Photo by © Krista Schlyer/iLCP.
An osprey in its nest in the James River next to a chemical plant. Photo by © Krista Schlyer/iLCP.

Where Do They Come From?

Toxic chemicals are constantly entering the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams via wastewater, agriculture, stormwater, and air pollution. These harmful chemicals, such as mercury, PCBs, and PAHs, do not break down easily and persist in the environment for many years, impacting not just fish and birds, but humans as well. Stormwater flushes modern chemicals from lawn care, auto care, and personal care products into waterways, contaminating local streams and rivers.

Effects on Our Waters and Our Health

There are many examples of how chemicals harm our waters and our health:

  • Mercury: This heavy metal, often released from the burning of coal, pollutes waterways, taints fish, and can potentially damage human intelligience. In the Chesapeake region, governments have issued statewide fish-consumption advisories for mercury for all lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and for many rivers in Virginia.
  • Industrial facilities: High levels of contamination have been found around old industrial plants like the Sparrows Point steel plant in Dundalk, Maryland. Chemical contaminants have been recorded in the groundwater and sediment in some areas of the plant and the nearby creek. The wastes include benzene, chromium, lead, naphthalene, benzo(a)pyrene, and zinc. Little cleanup has occurred, on or off the plant site.
  • Stormwater: Stormwater runoff from cities and suburbs pick up oil, pesticides, and other chemicals as it flows across lawns, roads, and parking lots into nearby streams and storm drains. This type of pollution is significant and difficult to control. Once in our waters these chemicals disrupt the whole food web in a process called bioaccumulation. Small, bottom-dwelling aquatic organisms take up contaminants while feeding. Larger fish accumulate toxins in their tissues when they eat the contaminated organisms. In turn, birds, humans, and other wildlife eat the contaminated fish.
  • Coal-fired power plants: The burning of coal releases microscopic, soot-like particles 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The specks are spread by the wind over hundreds of miles. When inhaled, the particles are so tiny that they evade the body's normal filters and penetrate deep into the lungs, where they can trigger inflammation and respiratory problems. Their small size allows them to pass right through the lungs into the bloodstream, where they, according to EPA, can contribute to the risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular illness. In fact, in 2010 the Clean Air Task Force released a report stating that in the U.S. an estimated 20,000 heart attacks and 13,200 premature deaths per year are caused by fine particle pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Read more about pollution's effect on human health here.

You may also be interested in:
  • Sparrows Point: An Economic and Environmental Liability Neighbors of Sparrows Point in Baltimore, Maryland, including the communities of Turner’s Station, North Point, and Dundalk, have long expressed concerns about the impacts of current and historic releases of toxic chemicals into the air, surface water, and ground water.
  • Mercury In Our Food In the Chesapeake watershed, mercury is responsible for more waters listed with fish consumption advisories than any other pollutant.
  • CBF Challenges Plan for Offshore Testing at Steel Plant CBF and its partners have appealed a court ruling that would allow the owners of the Sparrows Point steel plant to conduct only a minimal investigation into offshore pollution at the plant.
  • Danger from the Air Air pollution, primarily from power plants, is the main source of the mercury that contaminates fish in the Bay watershed.
  • Bear Creek: Where Residents Fish. And Worry. The scariest thing in the area these days certainly isn't black bears. It might be the creek itself.
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