Superfund Research Program

Characterization of Contaminants in New York City

Release Date: 04/15/1998

New York City has been a leading U.S. port and center of industry for several centuries. As a result of its bustling activity and sizable population, this vibrant city also has extensive environmental pollution. In a collaborative investigation tracking sources, fate and distribution of pollutants in the New York City area, scientists in the Mount Sinai Superfund Basic Research Program found that the past century's deposition of lead per unit area into central Manhattan was more than 50 times the regional value for the northeastern United States. This finding by scientists affiliated with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory suggests that the New York metropolitan area was much more heavily contaminated with airborne lead than previously recognized.

Surprisingly, the scientists also found that concentrations of lead in New York Harbor sediments accumulated during the last few years are still five to seven times greater than background levels characteristic of uncontaminated fine-grained sediment. Given dramatic reductions in industrial lead emissions and use of leaded gasoline, this finding indicates there remain substantial active sources of lead discharging into the city's waterways. A search for the sources of the continuing lead contamination is currently underway.

In addition to high lead levels, the city is concerned about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other types of organochlorine compounds. The Hudson River is one of the nation's largest Superfund sites as a consequence of its contamination with PCBs. In a separate but closely related investigation, scientists at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are determining the sources and distribution of PCBs and other organochlorine compounds found in the New York Harbor complex. The scientists' efforts have uncovered significant sources of three important contaminants: (1) a dominant source of chlordane that originates in the Passaic and Hackensack River Basins of New Jersey; (2) a major source of PCBs that has been traced back to the upper Passaic; and (3) a major input of dioxins to the upper Hudson.

In support of their overall goal of characterizing the contaminants in New York City, the two research groups are currently collaborating on chemical analyses of sediment core samples collected from multiple locations in the Hudson, Passaic, and Hackensack Rivers, Central Park Lake in Manhattan, and New York Harbor. In addition, discrete layers of sediments are being dated through parallel measurements of radionuclides already present in the environment, which were derived from both natural and human sources. Because the method has proven to be sensitive and widely applicable, the samples are reliable indicators of multiple contaminants that have been deposited in New York City over a number of decades and can serve as an integrated record of relative changes in human exposures to environmental contaminants over the past century.

Both lead and the organochlorine compounds are potentially toxic; therefore, their high levels in New York City have generated significant public health concern. Until recently, the characterization of New York City's pollutants has been sketchy, making it more difficult to predict the health risks that the persistent contaminants pose to residents of the New York metropolitan area. The researchers are filling a need for more definitive information on the city's pollution problems by undertaking this comprehensive evaluation of lead and organochlorines in New York City's waterways and atmosphere.

This assessment of contaminant distribution in New York City is essential for development of rational strategies of exposure prevention. The findings of this collaborative research effort are also aiding environmental regulatory and management activities including the EPA's Reassessment of the Hudson River PCB problem and a multi-agency investigation of the New York Harbor dredging and dredge soil disposal. Collaboration with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has led to the expansion of trace metal investigations to include assessment of the sources and distribution of mercury, a major concern in NY Harbor dredge spoils. The techniques being developed and refined in this research effort have also been applied in collaborative work with the NYSDEC on Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and the Finger Lakes.

Moreover, the interdisciplinary connections that exist in the Mount Sinai program between these geochemical studies and toxicological research underway at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have enabled biomedical researchers to assess the potential of organochlorine compounds from New York Harbor sediments to exert hormonal activity and to alter carcinogen metabolism in cultures of human breast cells. These toxicological studies may shed light on environmental factors associated with the genesis of breast cancer.

For More Information Contact:

Steven N Chillrud
Columbia University
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
7 Marine Biology
Palisades, New York 10964
Phone: 845-365-8893

Richard F Bopp
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Room 1W19 Science Center
Troy, New York 12180-3590
Phone: 518-276-3075

To learn more about this research, please refer to the following sources:

  • Bopp RF, Chillrud SN, Shuster EL, Simpson HJ, Estabrooks FD. 1998. Trends in chlorinated hydrocarbon levels in Hudson River basin sediments. Environ Health Perspect 106(Suppl.4):1075-1081. PMID:9703496
  • Daniel DC, Weston A. 1997. Benzo[a]pyrene enhances levels of erbB2 in normal mammary epithelial cells in organoid culture. Ann N Y Acad Sci 833:169.
  • Weston A, Pan C, Ksieski HB, Wallenstein S, Berkowitz GS, Tartter PI, Bleiweiss IJ, Brower ST, Senie RT, Wolff MS. 1997. P53 haplotype determination in breast cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 6:105-112. PMID:9037561

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