Environmental History 
of the Spokane River

Effects of Heavy Metals

A map of pollutants entering into the Spokane River.

Heavy metals have had a drastic impact on the Spokane river ecosystem. For starters, according to the USGS study done on the Spokane River they estimated annually, “About 4,600 pounds of cadmium, 44,000 pounds of lead, and 980,000 pounds of zinc were transported from Coeur d’Alene Lake into the Spokane River.” The presence of heavy metals harms the Spokane River ecosystem by causing harmful and potentially lethal effects, like cancer, to aquatic and human life.

Picture of the Bunker Hill Mine

The introduction of heavy metals into the Spokane River can have a lasting effect on the ecosystems. A study conducted by Shul’kin et al. tested the longevity of heavy metal presence in the Rudnaya River, located in Russia. What this study concluded was that even years after the heavy metal mine shut down, which was the main polluter, the levels of heavy metals in the river did not decrease. The Shul’kin et al. study can be applied to the Spokane River. According to the same USGS study on the Spokane River, “…mining activities in mineralized areas of the South Fork Coeur d’Alene River (SFCDR) as the primary source of trace metal-contaminated water and sediment in the SFCDR, Coeur d’Alene River (CDR), Coeur d’Alene Lake, and Spokane River.” Thus, removing the Silver Valley mines will not solve the problem of heavy metal pollution in the Spokane River.

Photograph of a contaminated Trout caught in the Coeur d' Alene River.

Several studies have been conducted looking at the effects certain heavy metals have on aquatic wildlife. A study conducted by Vinodhini and Narayanan, focused on the effects heavy metals have on marine life, more specifically on the effects of heavy metal bioaccumulation in fish. The study indicated, increase exposure to heavy metals causes serious and fatal health effects in fish. Ultimately, heavy metals cause a plethora of problems to the river ecosystem due to the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in organism. Not only would heavy metals effect fish, but the whole ecosystem including humans would be negatively affected.

Increased exposure to heavy metals are toxic to humans. According to the World Health Organization, increase intake of heavy metals can cause cancer, effecting the liver, spleen, kidney as well as reduce cognitive function. The EPA states that infants and children are at higher risks of heavy metal poising than any other age demographic. The Spokane River Forum provides areas along the Spokane River that have increased levels of heavy metal contamination. Sediment on the beaches along the Spokane River have high concentration of heavy metals and the beaches near the Upriver Dam are concerning according to the Spokane River Forum. Also due to the bioaccumulation of heavy metals in aquatic ecosystems, the levels of heavy metals in fish residing in the Spokane River are concerning. Eating fish out of the Spokane River can cause health problems due to the levels of heavy metals in fish.

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