Copper in Our Waterways

Andy Lassiter, our faithful intern from COFC's MES program, takes pluff mud samples to be used in a study to measure copper in Charleston's waterways.

Copper is a natural occurring element in nature; however, when excessive amounts of this heavy metal gather in our waterways, it becomes incredibly harmful to aquatic life.

According to DHEC’s most recent list of impaired waterways, 11 of Charleston’s creeks, rivers and tributaries are contaminated due to excessive amounts of copper.

Copper has been shown to suppress immune systems, act as an endocrine disruptor (a substance that can turn female fish into male fish), and impact the nervous systems of both aquatic and human life (especially in those with heightened vulnerability).  One study also found that fish, such as salmon, that swim in areas of copper-contamination, lose a great amount of their ability to smell, thus leaving them susceptible to prey and less equipped to find food.

So, where’s all this copper coming from?  As noted above, small levels of copper occur in nature; however, after that, we as humans are responsible for the higher amounts in our waterways.  One of the primary sources of copper contamination (especially in popular place like Charleston) is from copper-based bottom paints.  Otherwise known as antifouling paint, this stuff is applied to the bottoms of boats to prevent growth from using your hull as a home.  According to faithful wikipedia, copper “impede[s] growth of barnacles, algae, and other such organisms. Since such a barrier ablates slowly, it must be renewed periodically.”  In other words, copper forms a force-field-like barrier, poisoning all life around it.  And, it slowly leaches off boat bottoms and settles in our waterways and riverbeds.

So, what does all this have to do with Charleston Waterkeeper?  Well, our goal is to improve the quality of our waterways.  In order to do this, a few things are needed.  First, we must identify the things out there that are degrading our waterways in some way.  Then, we must find some sort of a solution to address this problem or threat.  In regards to copper, we have an obvious threat.  So, what’s the solution?  Well it’s a bit complex, but we’re starting at square one.

We’ve teamed up with the College of Charleston and have brought on an intern from their Masters of Environmental Studies program.  The goal is to study the amount of copper in and around Charleston Harbor.  We want to find out where copper levels are highest.  I’ll spare you all with the nitty-gritty scientific stuff for now, but the long and the short of it is that we’re going to be slopping around in pluff mud over the next month gathering 60 samples to be tested for copper.  Thanks to our friends at QROS laboratories, we’ll find out how much copper exists in each of these samples, thus allowing us to draw a conclusion of where this stuff is coming from based on where each sample was taken.

Assuming there are heightened levels of copper around marinas and boatyards (which is what we expect), we can deduce that the copper bottom paint from boat hulls is slowly poisoning the surrounding waterways.  The hope is to educate the public about ways we can reduce the amount of copper that is entering out waterways – from alternative, water-friendly bottom paints (which won’t impact the fish you’re taking home for dinner), to responsible ways of scraping your hulls.

We’re looking forward to getting our hands dirty and are excited to see what we find.  Stay tuned for more on this…

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