You might never suspect that a fish living in a high alpine lake in Glacier National Park could contain enough pesticides to cause authorities to warn people not to eat the fish. But surprisingly, even in these remote areas where pesticides are not used, pollutants have been found in fish, lake water, soil, and plants.

Where are these pesticides coming from? This is the question that Dr. Staci Simonich seeks to answer. Her research focuses on the movement of pesticides and products of incomplete combustion through the atmosphere. Within five days, air from Asia can travel across the Pacific Ocean reaching the western United States. Riding along in these air masses are tiny airborne particles. And attached to these particles are chemicals that can be harmful to humans and wildlife. Simonich’s lab is particularly interested in pesticides, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) found on the particles. PAHs are a class of chemicals that come from burning of fossil fuels, wood or other plant-based fuels, PBDEs are used as flame retardants in consumer products, and PCBs were historically used in electrical equipment.

After the air currents travel across the Pacific Ocean, the air deposits the particles into high altitude areas such as mountain peaks. The pollutants enter the ecosystem through snow and water, and are taken up by plants and animals in the area such as fish living in the high altitude lakes. Air from local regions can also move up to mountain top zones. Simonich has been able to distinguish between the unique chemical fingerprints of local air contaminants and those likely to have come from Asia. In doing so, she hopes to identify characteristics of these chemicals that can be considered in the creation of future agricultural and industrial chemicals that will reduce their likelihood to travel long distances in the atmosphere to unintended ecosystems.

One exciting research project is Simonich’s collaborative project Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project (WACAP). This project studies the deposition of airborne contaminants in Western National Parks, providing regional and local information on exposure, accumulation, impact, and probable sources. Research sites include high elevation ecosytems located in Noatak, Gates of the Arctic, Denali, Olympic, Glacier, Rainier, Sequoia, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. The project focuses on contaminants that end up in snow, lake water, sediment, fish, vegetation, and moose.

Simonich, an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology and the Department of Chemistry, enjoys being a Center Investigator within EHSC for several reasons. One is the integrative nature of EHSC that provides opportunities to collaborate with members of other departments she might not otherwise work with. She also enjoys being involved in with the Community Outreach and Education Core, working with the Hydroville Curriculum Project, the Unsolved Mysteries of Human Health website, and consistently hosts visits from local school classes in her research lab.

Visit The Answers Are Blowing In The Wind  to learn more about how the chemicals in air are measured.

By Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
Photo credit: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
EHSC Investigator Staci Simonich, left, removes and replaces filters with Peking University graduate student Wentao Wang. Dr. Simonich was on-site in Beijing to monitor air quality for the 2008 Olympic Games. 


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