Environmental Monitoring and Assessment

, Volume 81, Issue 1, pp 149-161

First online:

Incidence of Stress in Benthic Communities along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Coasts within Different Ranges of Sediment Contamination from Chemical Mixtures

  • Jeffrey L. HylandAffiliated withNOAA National Ocean Service
  • , W. Leonard BalthisAffiliated withNOAA National Ocean Service
  • , Virginia D. EngleAffiliated withU.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • , Edward R. LongAffiliated withERL Environmental
  • , John F. PaulAffiliated withU.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • , J. Kevin SummersAffiliated withU.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • , Robert F. Van DolahAffiliated withSC Department of Natural Resources

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Synoptic data on concentrations of sediment-associated chemical contaminants and benthic macroinfaunal community structure were collected from 1,389 stations in estuaries along the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts as part of the nationwide Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP). These data were used to develop an empirical framework for evaluating risks of benthic community-level effects within different ranges of sediment contamination from mixtures of multiple chemicals present at varying concentrations. Sediment contamination was expressed as the mean ratio of individual chemical concentrations relative to corresponding sediment quality guidelines (SQGs), including Effects Range-Median (ERM) and Probable Effects Level (PEL) values. Benthic condition was assessed using diagnostic, multi-metric indices developed for each of three EMAP provinces (Virginian, Carolinian, and Louisianian). Cumulative percentages of stations with a degraded benthic community were plotted against ascending values of the mean ERM and PEL quotients. Based on the observed relationships, mean SQG quotients were divided into four ranges corresponding to either a low, moderate, high, or very high incidence of degraded benthic condition. Results showed that condition of the ambient benthic community provides a reliable and sensitive indicator for evaluating the biological significance of sediment-associated stressors. Mean SQG quotients marking the beginning of the contaminant range associated with the highest incidence of benthic impacts (73–100% of samples, depending on the province and type of SQG) were well below those linked to high risks of sediment toxicity as determined by short-term toxicity tests with single species. Measures of the ambient benthic community reflect the sensitivities of multiple species and life stages to persistent exposures under actual field conditions. Similar results were obtained with preliminary data from the west coast (Puget Sound).

Benthic indicators chemical contaminants sediment quality predicting benthic stress U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico estuaries