Rebecca Sutton's picture

Rebecca  Sutton, PhD

Managing Senior Scientist
Clean Water Program
Bay Regional Monitoring Program
Contaminants of Emerging Concern

Dr. Rebecca Sutton is a Managing Senior Scientist for the Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay (RMP). She leads the RMP's Emerging Contaminants Workgroup and a team of scientists investigating contaminants of emerging concern in the San Francisco Bay and across California. She studies a broad range of contaminants, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), flame retardants, rubber and plastic additives, ethoxylated and quaternary ammonium surfactants, current-use pesticides, and microplastics, among others. Dr. Sutton has served on California’s Green Ribbon Science Panel (2014-2022) to aid the state’s Safer Consumer Products Program, as well as a federal panel to review the drinking water Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 5) for the US Environmental Protection Agency (2022).

Dr. Sutton received her B.S. in Environmental Resource Science from the University of California, Davis and her Ph.D. in Environmental Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation explored molecular-scale interactions affecting contaminant fate and transport as well as soil carbon storage to mitigate climate change. Prior to joining SFEI, Dr. Sutton was a senior scientist with research and advocacy non-profit Environmental Working Group, where she conducted investigations on chemicals of concern in air, water, soil, consumer goods, and people.

Related Projects, News, and Events

Storms drive emerging contaminants into the Bay (News)

Rainfall washes contaminants from urban landscapes to San Francisco Bay, degrading water quality. In the latest RMP Update, we highlight the findings of a major multi-year screening study to quantify hundreds of emerging contaminants in stormwater. Our investigation shows that urban stormwater runoff transports toxic chemicals including PFAS, flame retardants, plastic additives, auto tire chemicals, and many others, with concentrations often similar to discharges of municipal wastewater effluent. Further characterization of emerging contaminants in stormwater is a priority for future work.

RMP Update (Project)

The Regional Monitoring Program for Water Quality in San Francisco Bay is an innovative collaboration of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, the regulated discharger community, and the San Francisco Estuary Institute. It provides water quality regulators with the information they need to manage the Bay effectively. The RMP produces two types of summary reports: The Pulse of the Bay and the RMP Update. The Pulse focuses on Bay water quality and summarizes information from all sources.

California Trash Monitoring Methods Project (Project)

The California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), in close partnership with the State Water Board, has recognized the importance of standard methods for trash monitoring and has funded this project. The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) and San Francisco Bay Estuary Institute (SFEI) have partnered up to test multiple trash monitoring methods with a goal of developing a library of methods with known levels of precision, accuracy, and cross-comparability of results, and linking these methods to specific management questions.

Next Generation Urban Greening (Project)

SFEI is working with partners across the Bay Area to design tools to help cities achieve biodiversity, stormwater, and climate benefits through multifunctional green infrastructure.

Scientists Raise Concerns About Popular COVID Disinfectants (News)

The COVID-19 pandemic has boosted the unnecessary use of antimicrobial chemicals linked to health problems, ecological harm, and antimicrobial resistance, warn scientists in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) (Project)

A recent analysis of PFAS in the surface waters of SF Bay was conducted to understand the occurrence, fate, and potential risks to ecological and human health. Eleven of 40 PFAS were detected at part per trillions (ppt) concentrations in ambient water collected in 2021 from 22 sites in the Bay. Seven PFAS (PFPeA, PFHxA, PFHpA, PFOA, PFBS, PFHxS, and PFOS), were found in at least 50% of samples. Concentrations of PFAS in the Bay were generally consistent with similar studies globally for surface water. Sustained, multi-matrix monitoring of this important class of contaminants of emerging concern is a high priority for the RMP.

Microplastic Pollution in San Francisco Bay (Project)

Plastic pollution is gaining global recognition as a threat to the resilience and productivity of ocean ecosystems. However, we are only just beginning to understand the scope and impacts of microplastic particles (less than 5 mm) on coastal and ocean resources, and the San Francisco Bay Area is no exception. A preliminary study of nine water sites in San Francisco Bay, published in 2016, showed greater levels of microplastics than the Great Lakes or Chesapeake Bay.

Scientists Advise a Major Shift in Chemicals Management in the U.S. and Canada (News)

A new approach is essential to help governments and businesses eliminate harmful chemicals from daily use and exposure, according to a paper published today in Environmental Science & Technology.

PFAS in San Francisco Bay Water (News)

Scientists with the San Francisco Bay Regional Monitoring Program (RMP) detected PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” at parts per trillion concentrations in the waters of the Bay. A recent report finds the contaminants present in Bay water including the well-studied PFOS and PFOA, as well as their replacements.

Forum on PFAS elevates the perspectives of local fishing communities (News)

Known as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a broad class of fluorine-rich specialty chemicals. Thousands of different PFAS are registered for use in consumer, commercial and industrial applications. Increased use has led to the widespread presence of PFAS in our natural environment, including San Francisco Bay. PFAS are a high priority for action at federal, state, and local levels due to the well-documented toxic properties of key members of this class of contaminants. 

RMP Journal Article: Targeted Monitoring of Organophosphate Esters and Bisphenols (News)

Organophosphate esters (OPEs) and bisphenols are two classes of mobile, endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are ubiquitously detected in environmental matrices due to high global production and use, particularly as plastic and polymer additives. SFEI scientists, led by Ila Shimabuku, and collaborators recently published a journal article describing a 2017 San Francisco Bay-wide Regional Monitoring Program study of 22 organophosphate esters and 16 bisphenols in open-Bay water samples. Concentrations were quantified and compared to protective ecotoxicity thresholds, where available, to assess potential risks to wildlife.

Microplastic Pollution (Project)

The RMP has conducted initial studies of microplastic pollution in San Francisco Bay. Findings from a 2015 screening-level RMP study of microplastic pollution in our Bay show widespread contamination at levels greater than other U.S. water bodies with high levels of urban development, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Wildlife consume microplastic particles; ingestion can lead to physical harm, and can expose aquatic organisms to pollutants like PCBs that the plastics have absorbed from the surrounding environment.

A Synthesis of Microplastic Sources and Pathways to Urban Runoff (News)

What do clothes dryers and car tires have in common? Both release microplastic pollution into the environment, according to a new investigation by scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute. 

New Developments in Emerging Contaminants and Green Chemistry (News)

SFEI tracks contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), building the knowledge necessary to prevent tomorrow’s pollution problems. SFEI also aids pollution prevention efforts through our Green Chemistry focus area. Recent local and state developments on CECs and green chemistry include:

Dr. Rebecca Sutton interviewed on KGO-TV about the potential impact of synthetic clothing on San Francisco Bay (News)

In a story called "Synthetic Clothes May Be Polluting San Francisco Bay," KGO-TV's Dan Ashley interviews SFEI's Rebecca Sutton, UC Davis professor Susan Williams, and Jim Erin from the San Jose-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility about the proliferation of synthetic fibers in the Bay. Such fibers may come from fleece jackets and other clothing produced from artifical fabrics.

SFEI Experts Assist California’s Safer Consumer Products Program (News)

Recent studies by the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) and the Regional Monitoring Program (RMP) have pinpointed chemical and microplastic contamination from tires as a rising concern in the Bay.  Tire ingredients of interest include zinc, which has many documented adverse health effects in wildlife, and 6PPD, a preservative

Toxic Tire Contaminant Found in Bay Area Stormwater (News)

Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) have found a highly toxic tire-related contaminant at levels lethal to coho salmon in stormwater flowing through four sites in the Bay Area. The contaminant, derived from a tire preservative, has been discovered by Washington state researchers to be responsible for high levels of coho salmon deaths in Puget Sound streams. These findings will  inform a petition by state stormwater leaders to the Department of Toxic Substances Control to address pollution of California streams caused by tires.

The research team, led by scientists at the University of Washington and Washington State University, published the results of their investigation yesterday in the journal Science. The chemical, 6PPD-quinone (pronounced "kwih-known"), can wash into streams along with tire wear particles when it rains. Scientists at San Francisco Estuary Institute collected samples from nine Bay Area streams and storm drains during storm events; four contained levels of this contaminant above the concentration at which half the coho salmon die after a few hours of exposure in laboratory experiments. SFEI’s Alicia Gilbreath and Rebecca Sutton are co-authors on the study.

Contaminant Data Download and Display (CD3) (Project)

Contaminant Data Display and Download Tool or CD3  is an innovative visualization tool for accessing water quality data for the San Francisco Bay-Delta and northern montane regions. It is the primary tool for accessing and downloading the San Francisco Bay Regional Monitoring Program’s (RMP) long-term dataset and other project data stored in SFEI's Regional Data Center (RDC).

New Book Chapter: Pesticides in Our Homes Wash Down the Drain (News)

A state-of-the-science review of current-use pesticides in wastewater, led by SFEI senior scientist Dr. Rebecca Sutton, indicates this pollution pathway is significant and should not be overlooked. The book chapter provides a comprehensive conceptual model of all types of pesticides that have the potential to be washed down the drain and into wastewater. Conventional wastewater treatment technologies are generally ineffective at removing pesticides, so additional monitoring and modeling studies are needed to guide efforts to prevent pesticide pollution.

RMP Study in the News: “Dog and cat flea treatments suspected of polluting San Francisco Bay” (News)

As a result of summary information presented in the latest Pulse of the Bay (see below), the San Jose Mercury News published an article based on a RMP study of pesticide movement through Bay Area wastewater treatment plants.  Fipronil is an insecticide that is of moderate concern for the Bay because levels in sediment are in the range of toxicity thresholds for freshw