A colony of zebra mussels.
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Toxic Substances of Concern

Toxic survey of the Lake Toxic substances are chemicals that, at some concentrations, can harm plants and animals, including humans. In general, they are found in low concentrations in Lake Champlain. However, Lake Champlain Basin Program studies have shown that contaminants accumulated in lake-bottom sediments may be having adverse effects on aquatic organisms at three sites of concern: Cumberland Bay, Burlington Harbor and Outer Malletts Bay. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are present at low levels throughout the Lake and have accumulated in the tissues of several fish species, prompting Quebec, Vermont and New York to post fish consumption advisories.

The plan for the Lake Champlain Basin, Opportunities for Action lists toxic substance prevention and control as one of its highest priorities. It calls for further investigation and restoration of the most contaminated areas of the Lake, and prevention of additional toxic substance discharges to the Lake and its rivers.

Cumberland Bay cleanup The Lake Champlain Basin Program and its partners have been working to identify toxic sites in Lake Champlain and remedy them. In 2000, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation finished dredging PCBs in Cumberland Bay at a cost of $35 million. Monitoring programs will continue to assess the site. Sediment contaminant levels are being measured in Burlington Harbor and tests are being conducted to determine whether the contaminants are harmful to aquatic animals.

Many groups throughout the Basin are also preventing pollution. Efforts include pesticide reduction workshops for farmers and homeowners, and programs to inform the dental community about proper mercury disposal. Citizens at home and at work can also prevent pollution by properly disposing household cleaners, batteries, and flourescent lightbulbs; using environmentally friendly cleaners; driving less and carpooling; and reducing pesticide use on lawns and gardens.

The Lake Champlain Basin Program reviewed the toxic substances found to date in Lake Champlain and ranked them as "high priority" and of "potential concern." Ranking was based on the extent and levels at which they are found, the risk that they may pose to human health, and the risk they may pose to the ecosystem. This set of priorities will be used to: 1) direct further research on presence and effects; 2) assist in source identification efforts; and 3) direct management efforts, including source reduction, treatment and remediation.

Toxic Substances of Concern Found in the Lake's Biota,
Sediment and Water
Group 1 PCBs, mercury* Persistent contaminants found Lake wide (in either sediment, water or fish) at levels above standards indicating potential risk to human health, wildlife, or aquatic biota. These are the highest priority for management action.
Group 2 arsenic, cadmium, chromium, dioxins/furans, lead, nickel, PAHs, silver, zinc, copper, persistent chlorinated pesticides+ Persistent contaminants in localized areas (in either sediment, water or fish) at levels above standards indicating potential risk to human health, wildlife, or aquatic biota. These are the next highest priority for management action.
Group 3 ammonia, phthalates, chlorinated phenols, chlorine, atrazine, alachor, and pharmaceuticals Contaminants that are found above background levels in localized areas of the Lake, but below appropriate standards.
Group 4 VOCs, such as benzene, acetone, pesticides, strong acids and bases, other potential pollutants such as fluoride Contaminants known to be used or known to occur in the Lake Champlain Basin environment.
* Based on US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Standards.
+ Based on a variety of guidelines (NOAA, Ontario, USEPA) regarding toxics in sediments.

Group 1 and Group 2 substances are of highest concern because they are found in Lake Champlain at levels above standards or guidelines that help predict human health or ecosystem effects. Group 1 substances rank higher because they have been found lakewide and are known to accumulate in the tissues of fish and wildlife, while Group 2 substances have been found only in relatively localized areas such as bays and near where tributaries enter the Lake. The substances in Groups 3 and 4 are considered of "potential concern" because they are known to affect organisms, but at higher concentrations than have been found in Lake Champlain.

Toxic Sources Include: Road runoff
  • Spills
  • Wastewater treatment plants
  • Industry
  • Stormwater runoff
  • Combined sewer overflows (CSOs)
  • Agriculture
  • Forestry
  • Hazadous waste sites
  • Landfills
  • In place contaminants
  • Atomospheric sources
  • Household hazardous materials

Among other sources, urban and agricultural stormwater runoff may contribute significant amounts of contaminants to surface waters. These substances include motor oil, pesticides, road de-icing chemicals, and metals. The amounts of these substances reaching streams, rivers and the Lake are difficult to quantify since the concentrations are generally low and stormflows are often difficult to sample. As urban areas are expanded in the Basin, the amount of stormwater runoff will increase and greater amounts of contaminants will be delivered.

Learn More...
  • Mercury Education and Reduction Campaign (VT DEC)
  • Hazardous Waste (Chittenden Solid Waste District)
  • Opportunities for Action Plan (See Chapter 2)
  • Background Technical Information for Opportunities for Action: An Evolving Plan for the Future of the Lake Champlain Basin. LCBP Technical Report #16. June 1996.
  • Lake Champlain Sediment Toxics Assessment Program: An Assessment of Sediment-Associated Contaminants in Lake Champlain: Phase 1 LCBP Technical Report #5. February 1994.
  • Lake Champlain Sediment Toxics Assessment Program. An Assessment of Sediment-Associated Contaminants in Lake Champlain: Phase 1. Executive Summary. LCBP Technical Report #5A. February 1994.
  • Lake Champlain Sediment Toxics Assessment Program. An Assessment of Sediment-Associated Contaminants in Lake Champlain - Phase 2. LCBP Technical Report #23. October 1997.
  • Cumberland Bay PCB Study LCBP Technical Report #27. October 1998.
  • Ecological Effects of Sediment - Associated Contaminants in Inner Burlington Harbor, Lake Champlain. LCBP Technical Report #33. September 1999.
Lake Champlain Basin Program, 2004
Design: Nicole L. Ballinger (LCBP) | Maps: Northern Cartographic and LCBP