Ecological and toxicological effects of inorganic nitrogen pollution in aquatic ecosystems: A global assessment

Departamento de Ecología, Edificio de Ciencias, Universidad de Alcalá, 28871 Alcalá de Henares (Madrid), Spain.
Environment International (Impact Factor: 5.66). 09/2006; 32(6):831-49. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2006.05.002
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT We provide a global assessment, with detailed multi-scale data, of the ecological and toxicological effects generated by inorganic nitrogen pollution in aquatic ecosystems. Our synthesis of the published scientific literature shows three major environmental problems: (1) it can increase the concentration of hydrogen ions in freshwater ecosystems without much acid-neutralizing capacity, resulting in acidification of those systems; (2) it can stimulate or enhance the development, maintenance and proliferation of primary producers, resulting in eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems; (3) it can reach toxic levels that impair the ability of aquatic animals to survive, grow and reproduce. Inorganic nitrogen pollution of ground and surface waters can also induce adverse effects on human health and economy. Because reductions in SO2 emissions have reduced the atmospheric deposition of H2SO4 across large portions of North America and Europe, while emissions of NOx have gone unchecked, HNO3 is now playing an increasing role in the acidification of freshwater ecosystems. This acidification process has caused several adverse effects on primary and secondary producers, with significant biotic impoverishments, particularly concerning invertebrates and fishes, in many atmospherically acidified lakes and streams. The cultural eutrophication of freshwater, estuarine, and coastal marine ecosystems can cause ecological and toxicological effects that are either directly or indirectly related to the proliferation of primary producers. Extensive kills of both invertebrates and fishes are probably the most dramatic manifestation of hypoxia (or anoxia) in eutrophic and hypereutrophic aquatic ecosystems with low water turnover rates. The decline in dissolved oxygen concentrations can also promote the formation of reduced compounds, such as hydrogen sulphide, resulting in higher adverse (toxic) effects on aquatic animals. Additionally, the occurrence of toxic algae can significantly contribute to the extensive kills of aquatic animals. Cyanobacteria, dinoflagellates and diatoms appear to be major responsible that may be stimulated by inorganic nitrogen pollution. Among the different inorganic nitrogenous compounds (NH4+, NH3, NO2-, HNO2NO3-) that aquatic animals can take up directly from the ambient water, unionized ammonia is the most toxic, while ammonium and nitrate ions are the least toxic. In general, seawater animals seem to be more tolerant to the toxicity of inorganic nitrogenous compounds than freshwater animals, probably because of the ameliorating effect of water salinity (sodium, chloride, calcium and other ions) on the tolerance of aquatic animals. Ingested nitrites and nitrates from polluted drinking waters can induce methemoglobinemia in humans, particularly in young infants, by blocking the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin. Ingested nitrites and nitrates also have a potential role in developing cancers of the digestive tract through their contribution to the formation of nitrosamines. In addition, some scientific evidences suggest that ingested nitrites and nitrates might result in mutagenicity, teratogenicity and birth defects, contribute to the risks of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and bladder and ovarian cancers, play a role in the etiology of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and in the development of thyroid hypertrophy, or cause spontaneous abortions and respiratory tract infections. Indirect health hazards can occur as a consequence of algal toxins, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, pneumonia, gastroenteritis, hepatoenteritis, muscular cramps, and several poisoning syndromes (paralytic shellfish poisoning, neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, amnesic shellfish poisoning). Other indirect health hazards can also come from the potential relationship between inorganic nitrogen pollution and human infectious diseases (malaria, cholera). Human sickness and death, extensive kills of aquatic animals, and other negative effects, can have elevated costs on human economy, with the recreation and tourism industry suffering the most important economic impacts, at least locally. It is concluded that levels of total nitrogen lower than 0.5-1.0 mg TN/L could prevent aquatic ecosystems (excluding those ecosystems with naturally high N levels) from developing acidification and eutrophication, at least by inorganic nitrogen pollution. Those relatively low TN levels could also protect aquatic animals against the toxicity of inorganic nitrogenous compounds since, in the absence of eutrophication, surface waters usually present relatively high concentrations of dissolved oxygen, most inorganic reactive nitrogen being in the form of nitrate. Additionally, human health and economy would be safer from the adverse effects of inorganic nitrogen pollution.

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