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Heavy metal contamination in an urban stream fed by contaminated air-conditioning and stormwater discharges

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Urban waterways are impacted by diffuse stormwater runoff, yet other discharges can unintentionally contaminate them. The Okeover stream in Christchurch, New Zealand, receives air-conditioning discharge, while its ephemeral reach relies on untreated stormwater flow. Despite rehabilitation efforts, the ecosystem is still highly disturbed. It was assumed that stormwater was the sole contamination source to the stream although water quality data were sparse. We therefore investigated its water and sediment quality and compared the data with appropriate ecotoxicological thresholds from all water sources.


Concentrations of metals (Zn, Cu and Pb) in stream baseflow, stormwater runoff, air-conditioning discharge and stream-bed sediments were quantified along with flow regimes to ascertain annual contaminant loads. Metals were analysed by ICP-MS following accredited techniques.


Zn, Cu and Pb concentrations from stormflow exceeded relevant guidelines for the protection of 90% of aquatic species by 18-, 9- and 5-fold, respectively, suggesting substantial ecotoxicity potential. Sporadic copper (Cu) inputs from roof runoff exceeded these levels up to 3,200-fold at >4,000 μg L−1 while Cu in baseflow from air-conditioning inputs exceeded them 5.4-fold. There was an 11-fold greater annual Cu load to the stream from air-conditioning discharge compared to stormwater runoff. Most Zn and Cu were dissolved species possibly enhancing metal bioavailability. Elevated metal concentrations were also found throughout the stream sediments.


Environmental investigations revealed unsuspected contamination from air-conditioning discharge that contributed greater Cu annual loads to an urban stream compared to stormwater inputs. This discovery helped reassess treatment strategies for regaining ecological integrity in the ecosystem.

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University of Canterbury Facilities Management, particularly Dr. Kate Hewson, provided logistical support for this study. The Christchurch City Council and Environment Canterbury paid for many of the analytical costs in 2006. Peter McGuigan in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory provided technical guidance and support. Stuart Farrant, Eleanor Taffs, Will Jacobsen and Ingrid Cooper assisted with field reconnaissance and sampling, and Dr. Creon Upton provided feedback on the text.

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Correspondence to Aisling O’Sullivan.

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Responsible editor: Vera Slaveykova

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O’Sullivan, A., Wicke, D. & Cochrane, T. Heavy metal contamination in an urban stream fed by contaminated air-conditioning and stormwater discharges. Environ Sci Pollut Res 19, 903–911 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-011-0639-5

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  • Air-conditioning
  • Stormwater flow
  • Heavy metal contamination