Environmental Monitoring and Assessment

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 83–100

Guidelines for evaluating selenium data from aquatic monitoring and assessment studies

  • A. Dennis Lemly


It is now possible to formulate diagnostic selenium concentrations in four distinct ecosystem-level components; water, food-chain, predatory fish (consuming fish or invertebrate prey), and aquatic birds. Waterborne selenium concentrations of 2 µg/l or greater (parts per billion; total recoverable basis in 0.45 μ filtered samples) should be considered hazardous to the health and long-term survival of fish and wildlife populations due to the high potential for food-chain bioaccumulation, dietary toxicity, and reproductive effects. In some cases, ultra-trace amounts of dissolved and particulate organic selenium may lead to bioaccumulation and toxicity even when total waterborne concentrations are less than 1 µg/l.

Food-chain organisms such as zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, and certain forage fishes can accumulate up to 30 µg/g dry weight selenium (some taxa up to 370 µg/g) with no apparent effect on survival or reproduction. However, the dietary toxicity threshold for fish and wildlife is only 3 µg/g; these food organisms would supply a toxic dose of selenium while being unaffected themselves. Because of this, food-chain organisms containing 3 µg/g (parts per million) dry weight or more should be viewed as potentially lethal to fish and aquatic birds that consume them.

Biological effects thresholds (dry weight) for the health and reproductive success of freshwater and anadromous fish are: whole body=4 µg/g; skeletal muscle=8 µg/g; liver=12 µg/g; ovaries and eggs=10 µg/g. Effects thresholds for aquatic birds are: liver=10 µg/g; eggs=3 µg/g. The most precise way to evaluate potential reproductive impacts to adult fish and aquatic bird populations is to measure selenium concentrations in gravid ovaries and eggs. This single measure integrates waterborne and dietary exposure, and allows an evaluation based on the most sensitive biological endpoint. Resource managers and aquatic biologists should obtain measurements of selenium concentrations present in water, food-chain organisms, and fish and wildlife tissues in order to formulate a comprehensive and conclusive assessment of the overall selenium status and health of aquatic ecosystems.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. Dennis Lemly
    • 1
  1. 1.U.S. Forest Service, Coldwater Fisheries Research Unit, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife SciencesVirginia Tech UniversityBlacksburgUSA

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