Maintaining a Healthy Environment

By Henry, Mary G.; Gerr, Kelly | Endangered Species Bulletin, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Maintaining a Healthy Environment

Henry, Mary G., Gerr, Kelly, Endangered Species Bulletin

Contaminants enter the environment in many different ways; disposal of municipal wastes, factory discharges, and oil or chemical spills are a few examples. These examples are considered forms of "point-source" (or "end of the pipe") pollution because their origin is easily recognized. The amount of point-source pollution that enters our environment is impressive. For example, in 1995, a reported 2.2 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into our land, air, and water(1) and during 1996, 27,347 chemical and oil spills were reported(2). In addition, there are currently 33,000 known hazardous waste sites.

In many cases the origin of pollution may not be as clear For example, agricultural pesticides can be carried by runoff, or enter an aquifer, and end up contaminating a stream dozens of miles away. Pollutants can also be carried for long distances through the air and deposited on land and water by rain. Such examples are called "non-point source" pollution. Pollution from non-point sources can contaminate areas that may appear to be relatively untouched. For example, 41 of our nation's Fish and Wildlife Service management units (national wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, etc.) have advisories against consumption of their fish, shellfish, or other wildlife, and most of our national wildlife refuges have either known or suspected contaminant problems.

We are still learning what happens to contaminants once they enter the environment and the effects they have not only on fish, wildlife, and their habitat, but also on human health. Effects on fish and wildlife that have been noted with some chemicals currently registered for use in the United States include: acute toxicity; reproductive, developmental, and behavioral problems; immune system dysfunction; and premature death. It is often years, if not decades, before we may be able to prove that a specific chemical is having a harmful effect on our natural resources and, even if its use is banned, it may continue to persist in the environment for a long time.

The question is sometimes asked, "Why does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have an Environmental Contaminants Program? I thought EPA did that stuff?"

Maintaining a healthy environment is an immense responsibility. As the world's human population grows and contaminants accumulate in the environment, the responsibility looms even larger. In fact, it often takes both the EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to detect the problems and begin to solve them. Although its work benefits the environment as a whole, including natural resources, the EPA has historically emphasized human health and safety issues. On the other hand, the FWS Environmental Contaminants Program focuses on identifying and preventing harmful contaminant effects on fish, wildlife, and plants, and on restoring habitats degraded by various toxic substances.

FWS Environmental contaminants biologists are experts when oil and chemical spills occur. They understand pesticides, water quality alterations, hazardous material disposal, and many other aspects of pollution biology. With their understanding of chemistry and changes in water quality and their knowledge of fish, wildlife, and plants, our scientists know what to look for and where to look in cases of contamination. They do not work solely behind desks; they walk the streams, travel the backwoods, and note the changes around them. This "on-the-ground" presence enables experienced biologists to understand the connections among pollution, human activities, and changes in wildlife health.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's Environmental Contaminants Program is comprised of four major components:

1) Contaminants Prevention. Contaminants specialists review environmental documents, legislation, regulations, and permits and licenses with pollution potential to ensure that harmful effects on fish, wildlife, and plants are avoided or minimized. …

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