Northern Exposures: Contaminants, Science and Toxicology

Last week, I attended the annual conference of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Anchorage. The theme of this year’s meeting was “Northern Exposures: Contaminants, Science and Toxicology”. Members of academia, industry, independent research organizations and government came together to present their latest research on issues concerning environmental toxicology and chemistry. I learned a lot listening to the presentations of the other scientists on topics such as the toxicity of road runoff, pesticides, metals and oil.

I presented data from one of my studies that evaluated how oil, dispersant and dispersed oil affect different aspects of bay mussel health. Dispersed oil results when a dispersant is applied to oil. Dispersants are chemicals that help oil naturally degrade more quickly. The oil usually sits on top of the water and doesn’t mix with it. The dispersant breaks the oil into smaller droplets and allows it to mix into the water. Breaking the oil into smaller droplets helps it break down more quickly, but it might also make the oil more available for marine animals to absorb.


Bay mussels are often used to monitor the health of coastal ecosystems. Mussels are filter-feeders which means they obtain their food by filtering seawater. However, other things are present in the seawater besides food, like contaminants. The ability of mussels to concentrate contaminants from the seawater makes them useful for monitoring coastal ecosystems for pollutants. The goal of my project was to determine how mussels were effected by oil, dispersant and dispersed oil and for how long. This information can be used to evaluate recovery of coastal ecosystems after an oil spill.


Written by: Dr. Katrina Counihan

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