Recent studies of Puget Sound fish indicate rising levels of drugs in our waters, especially in estuaries downstream from the wastewater plants. Two species of fish – free-ranging juvenile Chinook salmon and adult staghorn sculpin, a bottom-feeding species that seldom ranges far from home – were analyzed for 150 chemical compounds, along with levels of intoxicants in the water itself.
92 of those compounds were found in the fish. As a result, many researchers are now sounding alarms about the impact our consumption patterns and failing treatments are having on water quality. Jim Meador, a fisheries toxicologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who headed up this team of researchers from the University of Washington and NOAA said, “We didn’t expect to detect so many compounds and at such high levels in the water.” He added, “To find so much of it in fish was also a surprise.”
The contaminants include legal and illegal drugs that are not usually monitored by wastewater treatment plants. These are chemicals that people ingest to fight depression and diabetes, to treat infections, anxiety and cholesterol: Prozac, Oxycontin, Xanax along with caffeine, cocaine and nicotine.
Termed “Chemicals of emerging concern” (CEC), these compounds range from pharmaceuticals to personal care products. Wastewater treatment plants endeavor to remove organic waste products and fecal bacteria and typically have not been required to eliminate these chemical concentrations which Meador’s study indicates are on the rise.
In the study, three estuary environments were studied: two areas slightly downstream from wastewater treatment plants in Bremerton and Tacoma, and one estuary near Nisqually, a national wildlife refuge where no wastewater treatment plant was used. The Nisqually zone was chosen as a relatively clean site, but even there the presence of many of these chemical compounds has raised eyebrows.
One surprising finding is the presence of contaminants within the flesh of fish that were absent in the water. This anomaly suggests that the fish absorb the chemicals and pass it on in a bioaccumulation process that may have implications down the road for all living creatures, resulting from our drugs.
Another surprise was the death rate of these salmon, which spend a few weeks per year in waters with high concentrations of chemicals, compared to the death rate of the sculpin, which spends its entire life in the most concentrated waters near the wastewater dump zone. Salmon died at twice the rate of salmon that spend their lives in cleaner water. The salmon in the study also showed higher levels of contaminants than the sculpin group.
Meador suggests that this discrepancy results from the active life of the salmon. “But young salmon eat a lot,” the toxicologist remarked. “They pass a lot of water over their gills, which allows the chemicals to be taken up into the gut of the fish.”
According to Betsy Cooper, the permit administrator of the Wastewater Treatment Division for King County “You have treatment doing its best to remove these, chemically and biologically, but it’s not just the treatment quality, it’s also the amount that we use day to day and our assumption that it just goes away, but not everything goes away.”
Wider efforts by our own Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and the World Health Organization are working to develop water treatments to slow down this chemical release. Citizens are encouraged to return unwanted or outdated prescription drugs to pharmacies rather than flushing them.