Shampoo, Coffee, etc.,
by Stephanie Mathieu
A new pollution study reveals that use of common consumer products like coffee, shampoo and antibiotics could be hurting salmon populations in the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers.
By passing products down the drain, humans are releasing chemicals into the rivers in amounts large enough to cause hormonal changes in salmon, according to a report released in August by the Portland-based Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership. This is the first time a study has tested for personal care products in the area, and their ubiquitous presence in the rivers is prompting environmentalists to search for solutions.
Like pollutants produced by industrial companies, household chemicals "affect the reproductive systems of species and are having an impact on salmons' ability to deal with predators," Debrah Marriott, executive director of the estuary partnership, said last week. "They are showing up in water bodies around the country."
According to the report, researchers also continue to find widespread "legacy" pollutants in the rivers. Most of these toxic chemicals, emitted mainly by industries, were banned decades ago but have yet to break down. These include PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a family of 209 toxic chemical compounds that have potential to cause cancer. They also may cause developmental damage to newborns exposed during pregnancy, according to health officials.
In 1979, the U.S. government banned most use of PCBs, chemicals widely used in electronics.
According to the report, scientists found PCBs in sediment at all four river sites tested, along with personal care products compounds, caffeine, flame retardants, petroleum products, currently used pesticides and traces of DDT, a banned pesticide.
They took samples of river sediments and juvenile salmon and planted sacks designed to absorb toxic chemicals just like a fish would. The highest concentrations of PCBs, petroleum products and flame retardants were found in the bodies and stomachs of juvenile salmon, revealing that salmon take in these toxic chemicals when they eat contaminated prey.
"The fact there were detections at all in rivers as large as the Columbia and Willamette suggest that toxic contaminants are widespread in the Columba River Basin, including the lower river," according to the report.
The Morrison Bridge site on the Willamette River showed the most toxic chemicals, but that doesn't necessarily mean Portland and Vancouver are the trouble spots, Marriott said. PCBs were found at the highest levels at the site downstream of Longview.
"We were only able to look at a few sites," she said. "It's very hard to draw conclusions. ... (Pollutants are) not static. They don't stay in one place."
Although most pollutants were detected in low amounts, scientists found "quantifiable" or significant traces of common pesticides, which they suspect warp a salmon's ability to mate and migrate from fresh to salt water. Like PCBs, pesticides are consumed by critters and passed up the food chain to people.
The study was funded through a $1.7 million contract with the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal power marketing agency. Samples were taken between May 2004 and April 2005 and in August 2005.
The estuary partnership still has $2.3 million from Bonneville to continue its research for the next four years. Officials have yet to choose those sites, said Jill Leary, acting director of technical programs for the partnership.
"There hasn't been this long-term, every-year look at multiple sites, and that's what we really need," Marriott said. The study will help environmentalists re-evaluate where the river's trouble spots are and whether they need to re-focus their efforts.
In 1996, Oregon's and Washington's Bi-State water quality program found that high amounts of pesticides, metals, arsenic and other pollutants were impairing water, sediment, fish, wildlife and recreational water activities. Sediment pollutants, according to that report, were highest near urban and industrial areas. Other recent studies performed on salmon, according to the estuary partnership's 2007 report, have shown that "almost one-third of juvenile salmon had PCB concentrations that exceeded threshold levels for adverse health effects such as metabolic alterations, reduced growth, immune dysfunction and reduced long-term survival."
In April, local health departments warned residents against eating Columbia River freshwater clams because they had 70 times the acceptable level of PCBs. No health warnings have been issued against eating salmon caught in the Columbia River.
To help, Marriott said the estuary partnership wants to launch an awareness campaign to teach people small steps to reduce river pollution. The campaign would include guidelines for consumers who want to purchase eco-friendly household products and new instructions for throwing away unwanted prescription medications.
"We've been told in the past the best way to dispose of them is to flush them," Marriott said, adding that consumers were told not to keep old medicine around for their children or pets to tamper with. "We need to think about that."
Leary said the estuary partnership also wants to organize a "take back" program in which residents could dispose of household chemicals --- including paint cans and medications --- at designated locations.
The point is to encourage consumers to be more "conscientious," Marriott said, adding that alternatives to harmful household products already are available on the market. "What we would like to do is look at products that are safer and encourage consumers to look at those."
Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, said a broader approach to the pollution problem is needed. Other solutions could include stricter ordinances against harmful household products or creating better filtration techniques at water treatment plants, where personal care product chemicals are passed through, Bell said.
"I don't believe that education alone will result in any meaningful change," Bell said Friday. "You can't, for example, anticipate that you're going to be able to get people to not drink coffee."
The use of flame retardants also should be reconsidered, Marriott said. Although the chemicals have no doubt safeguarded people from fire, their effects on the human body have not been studied, and research has shown the chemicals can harm fish and household pets.
"A lot of these substances, when we started using them, we didn't know what the implications were," she said. "We didn't know how long they would stay in our environment."
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