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Development of water quality assessment methods and toxicity reference values for northern biota in northern environments


Canada’s North holds abundant resources, and exploration and development are expected to significantly increase, with a promise of economic benefits for communities. These northern environments are also pristine, considered fragile, and experiencing unprecedented climate change. Therefore, a key aspect of ensuring sustainable resource development is an understanding of the potential for impacts, and establishing appropriate northern-specific thresholds for environmental protection.

There are important gaps in our understanding of the risks associated with contaminant exposure in northern environments. One of the most significant of these uncertainties centres on the degree to which effect thresholds for aquatic biota that have been derived for temperate (i.e. southern Canadian) environments are also valid in the North, given that reduced temperature can affect toxicity. Another poorly understood feature of northern environments is the influence of geochemical conditions on effect thresholds. Water chemistry is recognized as having a dramatic influence on responses to exposure, and increasingly, water quality guidelines and criteria account for these toxicity modifying factors (TMFs). It is therefore imperative to better understand the effect of both temperature and geochemical processes on toxicity in northern environments.

In this study, sensitive invertebrates and fish will be collected from northern sites and returned to the laboratory for culture and side-by-side testing with commonly used standard/model species from temperate environments. Tests will follow standard methods except for temperature and duration. Studies directed at fish will focus on the effect of temperature on contaminant uptake and sublethal effects known to impact health and reproduction. In addition, dissolved organic matter in water samples will be analysed to assess potential contaminant interactions.

This research program will develop the scientific knowledge needed to better assess the risks to northern species from contaminant exposure. Specific outcomes include delivering northern specific toxicity reference values and providing recommendations for modifications to standard test protocols (e.g., species, duration, exposure conditions) so that resulting data can be applied to the protection of northern environments. This research will also offer insight into the extent to which existing data from temperate regions can be applied in the North.

Program Name

National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG)


2015 - 2017


Arctic: Canadian Arctic Archipelago

Principal Investigator(s)

James McGeer
Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario)

Team Member(s)

D. Scott Smith, Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario)

Deborah MacLatchy, Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario)

Andrea Lister, Wilfrid Laurier University (Ontario)

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