Nine-City Study Reveals What's
by Natalie St. John
More Data Needed On Role Of Columbia River Runs
The same products that help people feel attractive, healthy and clean could be poisoning the Columbia River.
A recent study of treated sewage water from nine communities along the Columbia River revealed that the Longview-Kelso area flushes a unique mix of chemical compounds into the river, including epilepsy medication, nicotine by-products, anti-bacterial soap, flame-retardants and moth repellent.
Between 2008 and 2010, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Jennifer Morace and her team sampled both treated wastewater and stormwater runoff in communities in a 400-mile stretch of river ranging from Wenatchee to Longview. The researchers tested those samples for 210 toxic chemical compounds.
While stormwater contains the myriad industrial chemicals that wash off of parking lots, lawns and highways, treated sewage water discharged from the Three Rivers Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on Fibre Way comes mostly from homes and businesses in the Longview, Kelso, Lexington and Beacon Hill urban areas. Most of the chemicals are not removed by the sewage treatment process.
"The only way this stuff can get to the treatment plant is from toilets or drains," Morace said.
Some of the toxins on the list, such as flame retardants and steroids, showed up in all nine communities' waste water. However, a higher percentage of the 210 compounds — 40 percent — showed up in samples from the Three Rivers Wastewater Treatment Plant than in the other communities. By contrast, only about 30 percent showed up at the other eight sites, on average.
"Longview also was notable because it had the greatest number of detections, and the concentrations were usually among the highest," according to the study, released in April.
The $356,000 study raises a lot more questions than it answers, such as, Where are the toxics coming from? Are they damaging the river's ecosystem? And what, if anything, needs to be done to control them?
Fish advocates have long called for a better understanding and control of pollutants that the public discharges into the river routinely, and that goal has been included in plans to protect the river since 1999. The USGS study, which was conducted in collaboration with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, is the first of its kind to be conducted locally.
Even though a relatively small number of samples were analyzed, the study is considered a starting point to determine what pollutants everday citizens are flushing into the river.
"To reduce toxics, you need to know where they're coming from," Morace said.
Chemicals found in pharmaceutical products and personal care products were especially prevalent in water discharged from Three Rivers plant, which is managed by an appointed operating board. It was the only site where acetaminophen (Tylenol) was detected in the water, and levels of caffeine were many times higher than in samples from other plants.
Several common fragrances, including acetophenone and menthol (which are used in cigarettes and food and beauty products); an asthma medication; and a chemical used in spray disinfectants and household pesticides also were detected in local sewage discharges.
Some of the compounds detected in the water may reflect the lifestyle and product choices made by local people, said Duane Leaf, superintendent of Three Rivers.
"Consumers are always wanting something new and exciting. Because of that, manufactures are driven to outsell each other, so they're always creating, for example, a new anti-bacterial soap. ... People may not understand the (ecological) consequences," Leaf said.
"I would say your average person, when they're washing dishes, is not thinking about what's in the detergent. It's just really far away from how normal people think."
Morace and other experts emphasize that concentrations of most chemicals found in Three Rivers plant discharges were fairly low. But they point out that the plant pumps out an average of 8.3 million gallons of treated wastewater daily, so even small concentrations of toxic compounds can become significant over time, especially for chemicals that don't break down easily.
Furthermore, few of the chemicals found in the study are regulated by state or federal governments, because new chemicals are finding their way into the river faster than scientists can research them or policy makers can react.
"These compounds we're talking about are not things that are regulated. We don't have criteria, because we don't have enough toxicity information yet to know if these concentrations are concerning or not," Morace said.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Hood River-based Columbia Riverkeeper, said, "There's a chemical soup that's being discharged into the Columbia River every day. We simply don't know what harm that's causing to the people and to the fish."
"Many of these toxic pollutants have never been sampled before," VandenHeuvel added. "People have the impression that we no longer dump waste into our river, and that's simply not true. There are thousands of discharge points along the Columbia River and hundreds in Cowlitz County."
Most of these compounds pass unscathed through the plant, and into the river, because treatment plants are not equipped — or required — to remove them from the water. Treatment standards for the chemicals don't exist, Leaf said.
"Not only weren't they a part of the design, there was no standard to design to," Leaf said of the plant.
It is possible to design wastewater treatment plants that can contend with more pollutants, but this too is a slow, costly option. Most experts, including Leaf and VandenHeuvel, seem to agree that the most immediate, cost-effective way to keep pollutants out of the water is through education to change consumer behavior.
"Treatment plants can't do it all. That's where these voluntary efforts come in," said Mary Lou Socia, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"I don't think increased regulation is very popular these days, so we're going to have look more at voluntary action."
That kind of voluntary action can be as simple as taking advantage of community hazardous waste disposal programs for industrial chemicals and medicines (such as those run the the Longview Police Department), using fewer products or buying environmentally-friendly ones, VandenHeuvel said.
"The things we use in our homes and businesses end up in the river inevitably. As consumers, we can make choices about what we put in the river. It doesn't have to be fancy organic products — just paying attention to what we put down the drain," VandenHeuvel said. "All of those things really add up when we're working together."
Toxic Contaminants and Their Effects on Resident Fish and Salmonids by Jennifer Morace, Lyndal Johnson & Elena Nilsen, Science Policy Exchange, 9/11/9
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