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The impact on North Sea organisms of pollutants associated with sediment

More:  Institutes 
Parent project: Research action SPSD-I: Sustainable management of the North Sea, more
Reference no: MN/DD1/003
Acronym: ICAS
Period: January 1997 till December 2001
Status: Completed

Thesaurus terms: Benthos; Ecotoxicology; Heavy metals; PCB; Pollutants; Sediments
Taxonomic terms: Asterias rubens Linnaeus, 1758 [WoRMS]; Echinocardium cordatum (Pennant, 1777) [WoRMS]; Psammechinus miliaris (P.L.S. Müller, 1771) [WoRMS]
Geographical term: ANE, North Sea [Marine Regions]

Institutes (4)  Top 
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles; Faculté des Sciences; Département de Biologie des Organismes; Centre Interuniversitaire de Biologie Marine (ULB - UMH); Unité de Biologie Marine (BIOMAR), more, co-ordinator
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles; Centre Interuniversitaire de Biologie Marine (ULB - UMH); Biologie Marine - UMH (BIOMAR), more
  • Université de Mons; Institut de Chimie; Laboratoire de Chimie Organique, more
  • Belgian Science Policy (BELSPO), more, sponsor

Although releases of persistent pollutants such as heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into European seas are strictly controlled or forbidden, such pollutants continue to represent a threat to numerous marine ecosystems. What has happened is that their low solubility has caused them to associate with sediment which is now a major source of secondary pollution and contributes to the persistence of the initial pollution. In the North Sea, the main areas affected by polluted sediment are the estuaries (the Western Scheldt for example) and the "hot spots" resulting from the direct discharge of residues into the sea. The information available on the impact of heavy metals and PCBs associated with sediment on marine organisms, particularly benthos, mainly comes from bioassays for toxicity studying the impact of complex non controlled pollution. That makes it impossible to distinguish between the relative toxicity of the various pollutants involved. Further, the species studied are rarely key or dominant species which are representative of the benthic ecosystems of the North Sea. The result is that the principal ecological impact of pollutants associated with sediment is, as yet, mostly unknown.

The Project

The objectives of the research proposed are:

- to determine the impact of heavy metals and PCBs associated with sediment on representative species of macrobenthos in the North sea. These include the common starfish, Asterias rubens and the sea urchinsEchinocardium cordatum and Psammechinus miliaris.
- to use the common starfish to study heavy metal pollution in the North Sea.


The impact of heavy metals and PCBs associated with sediment will be investigated at several levels of biological organization ranging from biochemistry to ecology (population biology) to cover the broadest possible spectrum of effects. We will, therefore, study the effects on:

- the induction and activity of molecules implied in detoxication of these pollutants;
- the activity of the immune system;
- skeletal growth (an element characteristic of the organisms studied);
- the development and metamorphosis of larvae.

Heavy metal pollutants will be biomonitored by using the common starfish (the digestive system provides a short term indicator (days or weeks) and the skeleton functions as a long term integrator (months and years)).

The work projected will make it possible to evaluate the risks from heavy metals and PCBs associated with sediment and contribute to compliance with the commitments Belgium has made to various international organizations (international conferences on the protection of the North Sea, the Oslo and Paris Commissions). The data obtained, combined with that from other networks which measure flows of pollutants, can provide a basis for deciding whether clean-up is necessary (in tourist or fishing areas, for example), or whether special attention should be paid to certain regions (as regards, for example, the disposal of sludge from dredging).

The partners

The research as a whole will be based on the knowledge acquired by the laboratories participating in the network.

The Marine Biology Laboratory of the (French-speaking) Free University of Brussels (Dr. Ph. Dubois): the biology and ecotoxicology (heavy metals) of adult starfish and sea urchins. More particularly the research proposed is a direct application of the most recent laboratory results acquired under the Programme of Encouragement of Marine Science funded by the Federal Departments of Scientific, Technical and Cultural Matters from 1992 to 1996.

The Marine Biology Laboratory of the University of Mons-Hainaut (Professor M. Jangoux): biology of larvae, and particularly metamorphic events.

The Organic Chemistry Laboratory of the University of Mons-Hainaut (Professor R. Flammang), analysis by mass spectrography of complex organic mixtures. It will be used on its own or coupled with gas chromatography (apart from its reputation in general, the laboratory is well known for having developed a new type of tandem mass spectrometer of which only a few specimens exist).

Pooling these skills will make it possible to deal with the impact on the entire life cycle of the organisms studied (adult and larval life, including metamorphosis) of the principal pollutants associated with sediment and which have a long remanence (which means that they constitute a long term threat to the marine environment and human activities associated with it).

Documentation :

For further information:
Laboratoire de Biologie Marine - Université Libre de Bruxelles
Avenue F.D. Roosevelt 50, CP 160/15, 1050 Bruxelles.
Tel: +32-2-650 28 39 Fax: +32-2-650 27 96 e-mail:

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