POLYCYCLIC AROMATIC HYDROCARBONS IN SELECTED FISHES FROM THE ATHABASCA AND SLAVE RIVERS, CANADA
Human activities over the years, especially the unconventional exploitation of oil sands deposits, downstream on the Athabasca River (AR), might have affected the water quality and ecological integrity of the river basin, thereby presenting a threat to the environment and human health. There have been concerns that the oil sands process-affected waters stored in tailing ponds may be percolating to surface waters as well as underground waters, contaminating neighboring watersheds with a cocktail of chemicals including Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are present both naturally and from human activities as pollutants in the environment. Forest fires, geologic activities, and oil seeps are examples of natural sources of PAHs in the environment. The major sources of PAHs in the Athabasca region are leaching of oil sands deposits and contamination from oil sands production. On occasions, forest fires contribute PAHs in the area. There has been no comparative data on the exposure of PAHs to fish along the AR and Slave River. I used an integrative monitoring of selected fishes as an indicator to achieve four objectives: i) describe the spatial and seasonal distribution of measurable concentrations of products of biotransformation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PBPAH) in bile of fish; ii) determine the levels of parent PAHs in the muscle of fish, and extrapolate the data to estimate potential risk to human consumers, and to identify which species and geographic regions, if any, pose the greatest risk to humans; iii) use patterns of contamination to provide a scientific basis for elucidating the source of contamination; and iv) perform fish health investigation by collecting morphometric health measures and perform a systematic assessment of the occurrence of lesions in the fishes. I sampled whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), jackfish/northern pike (Esox luscius), walleye (Sander vitreus), goldeye (Hiodon alosoides) and burbot (Lota lota) from Fort McMurray, Fort McKay, and Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, and from Fort Smith and Fort Resolution on the Slave River in the Northwest Territories. The rationale for selecting fishes included: their abundance along the basin (some have short ranges, e.g., northern pike); their dietary/nutritional and cultural significance to communities in the area; their feeding strategy, such as benthic, supra-benthic, or pelagic, trophic status, and patterns of migration and habits of spawning. I addressed the first objective in Chapter 2, where the total PBPAHs were determined. Concentrations of products of biotransformation of 2 and 3-ringed, 4-ringed, and 5-ringed PAHs were measured using synchronous fluorescence spectroscopy. Spatial and seasonal differences were observed with greater concentrations of PBPAHs in samples of bile of fish collected from Fort McKay as well as greater concentrations of PBPAHs in bile of fish collected during summer compared to those collected in other seasons. Overall, PBPAHs were greater in fishes of lower trophic levels and fishes more closely associated with sediments. In particular, goldeye (Hiodon alosoides), consistently contained greater concentrations of all the PBPAHs studied. In Chapter 3, I achieved the second objective by measuring levels of parent PAHs in muscle of selected fishes and extrapolated the results to determine potential human health risks due to fish consumption. Dorsal muscle of fishes from upstream reaches of the AR close to oil sands extraction and upgrading activities, contained greater concentrations of individual PAHs than concentrations in muscle of fishes from further downstream in the Slave River. Risks posed by PAHs to humans were assessed using a B[a]P equivalents approach. According to the risk assessment results, the average lifetime risk of additional cancers for humans who consumed fish was less than 10-6. In Chapter 4, alkylated PAHs were also measured in fish muscle to achieve the third objective. The general presence of naphthalenes and phenanthrenes and the evaluation of molecular ratios (i.e., LMW/HMW alkyl-PAHs) allowed me to conclude that the major source of pollution is petrogenic, probably due to increases in oil sand activities around Fort McMurray and Fort McKay. I achieved the fourth objective in Chapter 5 by studying the health status and potential effects of industrial development on individuals of economically and culturally significant fishes. A resurgence in condition factor of all species after a low in 2011 was observed. Annual variation was also observed in condition factor and the incidence of anomalies or lesions. Morphometric data demonstrated relatively consistent health among fishes in both the Athabasca and Slave rivers. Analysis of condition factor and somatic indices did not demonstrate consistent differences along the river system. Overall, the health of fish as determined by the metrics employed in this study, does not appear to be adversely affected by the current level of development in the Alberta oil sands region. The data presented in this dissertation make invaluable contribution to the much needed monitoring program in the Athabasca and Slave Rivers. Overall, my findings provide baseline data on fish health, concentrations of parent and alkylated PAHs, and products of biotransformation of PAH in five species of large-bodied fishes consumed by humans in communities in the Lower Athabasca and Slave River basin. These results will be useful for establishing the status and trends and spatial distribution of PAHs during monitoring of the lower Athabasca basin and most importantly, as a valuable reference point before any potential permitted discharges of wastewaters from processing of oil sands to the AR.
Products of Biotransformation, Fish bile, Oil sands, Synchronous fluorescence spectroscopy, Human Health Risk Assessment, Alkyl-PAHs, Fish Health, Morphometric Data
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
School of Environment and Sustainability
Environment and Sustainability