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On the Job: Aquatic toxicologist

Andrew Williams

Chris Ingersoll works at the Columbia Environmental Research Center on four to five separate toxicology experiments at a time.

September 23, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Unlike Nemo, not all fish have their dad, Dory and a flock of sea turtles to save them. For less fortunate fish, there are aquatic toxicologists. Meet Dr. Chris Ingersoll, who studies the effects of chemical contaminants on aquatic organisms in order to keep underwater environments safe.

What does your job entail?
We try to understand if a chemical, like a pesticide, is released into water and how high the concentration can go that will still allow the wildlife that is exposed to it to survive, grow and reproduce. We conduct studies in the laboratory, in streams or in ponds to try and understand what happens if a chemical is released into the water. We’re constantly trying to find a safe concentration of the chemicals so that the environment still functions well.

FAST STATS
Name: Chris Ingersoll
Age: 54
AT JOB SINCE: 1980
COMO RESIDENT SINCE: 1986

How do you to test the water?
We have a lot of different methods to test the water, such as tests for short-term and long-term, single and multiple species. We usually send equipment down into the water to collect samples rather than get right in and do it ourselves.

What is the most toxic body of water you have ever tested?
The Grand Calumet River in the Great Lakes. It’s close to Gary, Ind., near southern Lake Michigan. Sediments in the Grand Calumet River are contaminated with heavy metals and hydrocarbons, which is caused primarily by the production of steel that has been going on for over the past 50 years.

Where can people see the effects of your job in their daily lives?
A primary goal of our studies is to provide fishable and swimmable surface waters across the United States. As a result of studies conducted by United States Geological Survey and by lots of other organizations over the past 40 years, there have been major improvements in the quality of our nation’s waters providing for safer conditions for use by wildlife and by humans.

What is the grossest thing you’ve ever seen while on the job?
Some of the tumors that form on fish — liver tumors, lip tumors — that might be a result of some of the chemicals in the water.

What about this field sparked your interest?
Boy Scouts started an appreciation for how fun the environment can be and an understanding that, unfortunately, sometimes the things we do to our environment make it less enjoyable to be a part of. It goes back to enjoying fishing and hiking and the things that Boy Scouts do.

What makes your job exciting?
We do a lot of work with endangered species. We’ve done a lot of development on freshwater mussels because 70 percent of the species nationwide are in decline. We were asked to conduct studies to better understand freshwater mussels, and as a result, we’ve come up with some methods that are now being used nationally.

What’s your favorite job memory?
Publishing the results of a study that can subsequently be used by environmental managers to take steps needed to improve the quality of surface waters or sediments associated with a critical habitat of a species. An example would be seeing where stressed mussels populations that have experienced declines in their numbers begin to rebound as a result of improved water or sediment quality at sites across the nation.

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