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Investigation of the Distribution of Organochlorine and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Compounds in the Lower Columbia River Using Semipermeable-Membrane Devices

By Kathleen A. McCarthy and Robert W. Gale

USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 99-4051, 136 pages, 9 figures, 23 tables, 10 appendixes

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Organochlorine and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds are of concern in the Columbia River Basin because of their adverse effects on fish and wildlife. Because these compounds can have important biological consequences at concentrations well below the detection limits associated with conventional water-sampling techniques, we used semipermeable membrane devices (SPMDs) to sample water, and achieved sub-parts-per-quintillion detection limits. We deployed SPMDs during 1997 low-flow conditions and 1998 high-flow conditions at nine main-stem sites and seven tributary sites, spanning approximately 700 miles of the Columbia River. We also collected streambed sediment from three sites. SPMD extracts and sediments were analyzed for polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, polychlorinated dibenzofurans, polychlorinated biphenyls, organochlorine pesticides and related transformation products, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Our data indicate that (1) in the absence of additional sources, mechanisms such as volatilization, dilution, and settling of suspended particles can act to significantly reduce concentrations of contaminants along the river's flow path, (2) elevated concentrations of contaminants in the Portland-Vancouver area are primarily from local rather than upstream sources, (3) elevated concentrations of many compounds tend to be diluted during periods of high discharge, (4) much higher discharge in the main stem considerably dilutes elevated concentrations entering from tributaries, (5) the distribution of hydrophobic organic compounds in streambed sediment is not necessarily indicative of their distribution in the dissolved phase, and (6) SPMDs can reveal patterns of contaminant occurrence at environmentally relevant concentrations that are undetectable by conventional water-sampling techniques.

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Last modified: 3/31/99