Assessing biological effects from highway-runoff constituents

Open-File Report 99-240

Prepared in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration (A Contribution to the National Highway Runoff Data and Methodology Synthesis)



Increased emphasis on evaluation of nonpoint-source pollution has intensified the need for techniques that can be used to discern the toxicological effects of complex chemical mixtures. In response, the use of biological assessment techniques is receiving increased regulatory emphasis. When applied with documented habitat assessment and chemical analysis, these techniques can increase our understanding of the influence of environmental contaminants on the biological integrity and ecological function of aquatic communities.

The contaminants of greatest potential concern in highway runoff are those that arise from highway construction, maintenance, and use. The major contaminants of interest are deicers; nutrients; metals; petroleum-related organic compounds, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX), and methyl tert -butyl ether (MTBE); sediment washed off the road surface; and agricultural chemicals used in highway maintenance.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of biological endpoints (measurable responses of living organisms) may be either directly or associatively affected by contaminant exposure. Measurable effects can occur throughout ecosystem processes across the wide range of biological complexity, ranging from responses at the biochemical level to the community level.

The challenge to the environmental scientist is to develop an understanding of the relationship of effects at various levels of biological organization in order to determine whether a causal relationship exists between chemical exposure and substantial ecological impairment. This report provides a brief history of the evolution of biological assessment techniques, a description of the major classes of contaminants that are of particular interest in highway runoff, an overview of representative biological assessment techniques, and a discussion of data-quality considerations.

Published reports with a focus on the effects of highway runoff on the local ecosystem were reviewed to provide information on (1) the suitability of the existing data for a quantitative national synthesis, (2) the methods available to study the effects of highway runoff on local ecosystems, and (3) the potential for adverse effects on the roadside environment and receiving waters. Although many biological studies have been done, the use of different methods and a general lack of sufficient documentation precludes a quantitative national synthesis on the basis of the existing data. The Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Intergovernmental Task Force on Monitoring Water Quality, and the National Resources Conservation Service all have developed and documented methods for assessing the effects of contaminants on ecosystems in receiving waters. These published methods can be used to formulate a set of protocols to provide consistent information from highway-runoff studies.

Review of the literature indicates (qualitatively) that highway runoff (even from highways with high traffic volume) may not usually be acutely toxic. Tissue analysis and community assessments, however, indicate effects from highway- runoff sediments near discharge points (even from sites near highways with relatively low traffic volumes). At many sites, elevated concentrations of highway-runoff constituents were measured in tissues of species associated with aquatic sediments. Community assessments also indicate decreases in the diversity and productivity of aquatic ecosystems at some sites receiving highway runoff. These results are not definitive, however, and depend on many site-specific criteria that were not sufficiently documented in most of the studies reviewed.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Assessing biological effects from highway-runoff constituents
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Massachusetts-Rhode Island Water Science Center, Columbia Environmental Research Center
vi, 45 p.