Chemical Contamination


An osprey nests close to a chemical plant along the James River.

Photo Credit: © 2010 Krista Schlyer/iLCP

Toxic Chemicals: 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.

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.

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