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Reassessment of Cyanide Ambient Water Quality Criteria: An Integrated Approach to Protection of the Aquatic Environment

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) current ambient water quality criteria (AWQC) for cyanide were developed in 1984. Since this time, additional research on cyanide toxicity and analytical chemistry has suggested that cyanide AWQC values need to be updated to reflect the current state-of-the-science and to ensure that the methods for implementing the cyanide AWQC reflect the bioavailable and toxic forms of cyanide. Therefore, the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) sponsored a reassessment of the AWQC for cyanide by initiating a thorough review of the current scientific literature on cyanide and conducting additional laboratory studies to further understand cyanide chemistry and toxicity. Consistent with the USEPA's draft strategy for developing AWQC, this evaluation also considered whether the cyanide AWQC are protective of benthos, threatened and endangered (T&E) species, and aquatic-dependent wildlife. This reassessment of AWQC for cyanide resulted in proposed freshwater acute and chronic criteria of 23 and 4.8 μg CN/L, respectively, which are comparable to the current freshwater acute and chronic criteria of 22 and 5.2 μg CN/L (free cyanide). For saltwater organisms, the reassessment resulted in proposed acute and chronic criteria of 20 and 4.1 μg CN/L (free cyanide), respectively, compared to the current saltwater acute and chronic criteria which are both 1.0 μg CN/L. The difference in the current and proposed saltwater criteria values is attributed to recent cyanide toxicity testing with several crab species in the genus Cancer and the copepod Acartia tonsa, which suggests this genus is not as sensitive to cyanide as previous cyanide toxicity testing indicated. A sediment-based cyanide criterion does not appear warranted if it is assumed that benthic organisms are not inordinately more sensitive to cyanide than the water column organisms that drive the basis for the proposed freshwater and saltwater criteria (the available cyanide toxicity data do not suggest that they would be), and given that bioavailable forms of cyanide are not expected to accumulate appreciably in sediment. Cyanide should thus be effectively regulated based on water column-based criteria and concentrations. Based on a combination of available empirical and estimated cyanide toxicity values for T&E species, the proposed freshwater criteria appear to be protective of most T&E species, but any site-specific modifications that increase the cyanide AWQC for water bodies inhabited by T&E species is not recommended. Finally, the proposed freshwater AWQC for cyanide appear to be adequately protective of aquatic-dependent wildlife.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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