Many of us have been aware of the dangers in our food, including salmon. We’ve been educated on the health concerns of farmed salmon given its contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and several chlorinated pesticides. We’ve also learned that toxic contaminants from oceans can still harm the wild fish as well. But what many of us weren’t prepared for was salmon filled with drugs like Prozac, Advil, Benadryl, Lipitor, and even cocaine.
This is the case for Puget Sound salmon. These drugs, and dozens of others, are showing up in the tissues of juvenile chinook as a result of tainted wastewater discharge. The estuary waters near the outfalls of sewage-treatment plants, and effluent sampled at the plants, were the shocking discovering of cocktails of 81 drugs and personal-care products, with levels revealed to be among the highest in the nation.
This is a growing concern, not just in the United States but in Canada as well. What are we doing to our planet?
The samples, which were gathered over two days in September 2014 from Sinclair Inlet, near the mouth of Blair Waterway in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, detected other common drugs as well. These include flonase, aleve, tylenol, paxil, valium, zoloft, tagamet, oxycontin, darvon, nicotine, caffeine. There were also fungicides, antiseptics and anticoagulants, along with cipro and other antibiotics.
The levels may be so high as a result of people in this area using more of the drugs detected. It could also be the result of wastewater-treatment plants’ processes, according to Jim Meador, an environmental toxicologist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and lead author on a paper published this week in the journal Environmental Pollution.
“The concentrations in effluent were higher than we expected,” Meador explained. “We analyzed samples for 150 compounds and we had 61 percent of them detected in effluent. So we know these are going into the estuaries.”
The chemicals were found both in the water as well as the tissues of migratory juvenile chinook salmon and resident staghorn sculpin. The researchers believe the study likely even underreported the amount of drugs in the water closer to the outfall pipes, or in deeper water.
Even the fish of the intended control water in the Nisqually estuary tested positive for chemicals. “That was supposed to be our clean reference area,” said Meador, who was astonished that the levels in many cases were higher than many of the 50 largest wastewater-treatment plants around the nation.
Meador’s other recent work has shown that juvenile chinook salmon migrating through contaminated estuaries in Puget Sound die at twice the rate of fish elsewhere. The effect this pollution is having on our environment, waterways, and life that dwells there, is of great concern. Health officials say that that the levels of contaminants are of no concern when it comes to human health, but how many times have we heard that before? Even trace amounts of chemicals consumed over long periods of time can cause serious DNA damage.
The Puget Sound area is home to 106 publicly owned wastewater-treatment plants that discharge to local waters, and the amount of drugs and chemicals from all those plants could add up to 97,000 pounds every year, according to the study.
Treatment plants aren’t completely successful at removing some drugs in wastewater, with seizure drugs being among the hardest to remove. “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,” explained Betsy Cooper, permit administrator for the county’s Wastewater Treatment Division. “But not everything goes away.”
Jessica Payne, spokeswoman for the State Department of Ecology, notes that the agency is in dire need of more research funding to monitor the presence and examine the impact of chemicals like the ones found in the study. “Ongoing research is really our best tool to understand these chemicals,” Payne noted.
The study wasn’t concerned with the safety of drinking water, however, since Seattle Public Utilities customers receive first-use water from the high Cascades, above any wastewater discharge and remote from human populations and septic tanks.