SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  19 January 2012
Volume 13 Issue 1

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Ross John Norstrom

In Memoriam—The Scientific Career and Legacy of Ross John Norstrom (1940-2011)

Rob Lechter, Pierre Mineau, Birgit Braune and Keith Marshall

The scientific, research and student supervision career of Dr. Ross John Norstrom spanned over 40 years, during which time he made significant contributions and had a major impact across interdisciplinary areas of environmental sciences including physical, analytical and environmental chemistry, modeling and ecotoxicology of chemical contaminants in wildlife and ecosystems in Canada and internationally.

After completing a B.Sc. (h) in 1962 and a Ph.D. in 1966 in chemistry at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Ross spent 3 years as an overseas postdoctoral fellow (National Research Council (NRC) of Canada) in the Departments of Physical Chemistry at the University of Bonn in Germany, and at Cambridge University in England, as well as at the NRC in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. During this postdoctoral period as a physical chemist, his research focused on gas-phase reactions of small molecules. From 1969 to 1974, Ross was an Associate Scientific Research Officer in the Division of Biological Sciences at the NRC in Ottawa. In this position Ross studied the dynamics of mercury and PCB contamination in the Ottawa River. This signalled a watershed shift in the direction of his career from physical to analytical and environmental chemistry. At the NRC, he developed one of the first dynamic models for bioaccumulation of mercury and PCBs in fish based on principles of bioenergetics and pharmacokinetics. In 1974 he moved to the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) of Environment Canada and to the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) in Hull, Québec, Canada, and remained there for the duration of his prolific career. Starting in 1992, Ross was an Adjunct Professor with the Department of Chemistry, Carleton University in Ottawa. Over his career, Ross has supervised and mentored many graduate students and post-graduate fellows as an adjunct research professor. Beginning in 1993 and until 2002, Ross served as a Conjunct Professor with the Watershed Ecosystems Graduate Program at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. Starting in 1992 and until 2003 he also served as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Ross also had co-supervisory involvement with students at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the University of Saskatchewan. Over his more than 30 years at Environment Canada, Ross`s scientific achievement earned him promotion to the highest level of recognition and career advancement as a Research Scientist in the Canadian Public Service.

At CWS, Ross pushed to a world class status the NWRC’s organochlorine analysis in complex wildlife matrices capabilities. By the early 1980s, Ross had developed and led NWRC to be the first Canadian lab capable of automated congener-specific determination of PCBs, dioxins and furans in wildlife tissues. In the 1990s, through collaboration with the University of Stockholm and with the help of Ph.D. students at Carleton University, Ross developed methods for the determination of PCB metabolites (endocrine disruptors affecting thyroid hormone transport) in wildlife, among others.

On the xenobiotic chemical front, there are numerous examples of Ross`s innovation and discovery with respect to the environment. For example, Ross discovered photomirex in Lake Ontario in collaboration with University of Santa Cruz (California) scientists and others, and he discovered and determined the global distribution of TCPMe, a persistent contaminant in technical DDT, and its breakdown product, TCPMeOH. He identified and determined the distribution of photoheptachlor and 7-hydroxyheptachlorostyrene in Arctic biota, including humans, as well as uncovering a series of complex chloro-bromo compounds of natural origin in Pacific Ocean seabirds and other biota.

He discovered the extent of the TCDD contamination problem in the Great Lakes in 1981 through analysis of archived herring gull eggs and demonstrated that Lake Ontario was the main Canadian hot spot, due to chemical industry in the Niagara Falls area of the USA. Using principal components analysis and principles of bioaccumulation and bioavailability, he showed that the dioxin pattern in herring gull eggs in most lakes was consistent with an atmospheric (combustion) signal.

Great blue heron egg samples from British Columbia, Canada, and archived at the NWRC allowed him to identify dioxins as major problem contaminants from the pulp and paper industry. In the short term, these findings resulted in the closure of several crustacean fisheries in British Columbia; in the long term, the results had a significant overall impact on the cleanup of effluents by pulp mills. He continued monitoring heron eggs subsequent to this cleanup effort in the early 1990s and documented dramatic declines in dioxin contamination. He collaborated with Canadian fisheries and provincial scientists in the first survey of dioxin and furan contamination in Pacific coast cetaceans.

Ross was also very active in Arctic-based research with an emphasis on contaminants in polar bears. Between 1982 and 1984, he conducted the first comprehensive survey of contaminants in Arctic biota. Beginning in the mid-1980s he was an active participant in studies of contaminants in Arctic biota and a major contributor to the Northern Contaminants Program in Canada. Working with colleagues and students in Canada, Alaska, Denmark, Greenland and Norway he led the first circumpolar study of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in polar bears. He also discovered the importance of chlordanes in polar bears and identified several classes of chemicals for the first time in Arctic biota.

Over his scientific career, Ross received several awards. In 1992, he received the Caledon Award for significant scientific, technological or administrative contributions to the analytical chemistry of pesticide residues and other environmental contaminants. In 1996, he received the Who’s Who Award from CWS for scientific leadership and expert advice over many years in environmental chemistry and ecotoxicology research and in contaminants management. For example, he was recognized for his contributions to resolving the dioxin contamination issue with chlorine bleaching in pulp and paper, along with other Canadian federal government scientists. In 1999, Ross was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Stockholm (Sweden) for his great achievements in the application of advanced chemical methods in order to increase our understanding of how environmental pollutants affect the ecosystems around the Great Lakes and in Arctic regions. In 2001, he received the Head of the Canadian Public Service Award for his contributions to science which led to the United Nations Global Convention on POPs, better known as the Stockholm Convention on POPs. In 2003, he received the inaugural CWS Director General’s Award for Excellence in Wildlife Science. Ross’s publications are highly cited.  In 2003, he was ranked among the top 250 most cited scientists in the world in the fields of ecology and environment for the period of 1981–2001 on the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) highly cited scientists listing.

Upon retiring from Environment Canada in 2003, Ross found a new vocation, mentoring young adults struggling with substance abuse problems. He passed away peacefully on 6 November 2011 surrounded by his family, after a short fight with pancreatic cancer. He will be deeply missed by his friends and peers but has left a rich scientific legacy that Canada as well as the international environmental science community can be proud of.

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