The impacts of rogue chemicals on Puget Sound

In early 2016, scientists at NOAA made headlines when they reported finding 81 different man-made chemicals in the tissues of juvenile chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Among those chemicals were drugs such as cocaine and Prozac.

This was the first time scientists had made these findings for the region’s salmon, but it has been well-understood that marine waters the world over are becoming an alphabet soup of rogue chemicals. In varying degrees, these chemicals are settling into the bodies of every species analyzed in Puget Sound, including humans.

Many are pharmaceuticals that pass through sewage treatment plants. Others, such as flame retardants (also known as PBDEs) can bind to the dust and blow out to sea. Some simply persist in the environment and pass through the food chain. Often these chemicals occur in vanishingly small traces, sometimes in the parts per trillion.

The big question, scientists say, is not whether these chemicals are in the environment, but which of them are the most dangerous. Could something in such trace amounts cause harm? And what happens when more than four million residents of the region all contribute to the problem?

That is the topic of our latest story in Salish Sea Currents. Christopher Dunagan reports on some of the effects of chemicals known as contaminants of emerging concern. The story covers a range of contaminants, from pharmaceuticals like Prozac and birth control to industrial chemicals. Some of the findings are surprising — tiny amounts of birth control in the water can actually change the sex of some fish species — and in other cases the ramifications are unknown but potentially disturbing. Take a read and you will never look at wastewater and our chemically-dependent culture the same way.

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In the news: Radiolab event will feature PSI’s water detectives

TacomaNewsTribuneLogoThere is a nice story in The News Tribune today on the upcoming Radiolab event in Tacoma. The January 22nd show at the Pantages Theater will focus on Northwest water issues and features a panel of environmental leaders, including PSI Director Joel Baker. The paper calls Joel and his lab “the ‘CSI’ of water science” and highlights some of their research into the high prevalence of household chemicals in local waterways.

“What we find in the water is by and large what you find in your house, from refrigerators to medicine cabinets,” Baker told the paper. The article describes how Baker and his group at the Center for Urban Waters are finding everything from artificial sweeteners to long-banned substances like DDT in nearby Puget Sound. Known as emerging contaminants, these substances often escape filtration systems and can be found in levels that, although tiny—sometimes in the parts per billion or even trillion—can still be potentially harmful.

Baker will be one of several panelists interviewed onstage by Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich. Other panelists include Ryan Mello of the Pierce Conservation District, Puget Sound Partnership’s Sheida Sahandy, and Jennifer Chang of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative. The event will focus on local water issues and will also go behind the scenes of the popular Radiolab podcast and radio series.
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New papers look at ‘zombie’ steroids

They are sometimes called ‘zombie’ chemicals. Some compounds thought to be safe and inactive can change into dangerously active forms when they are exposed to the environment. Two recent papers co-authored by PSI collaborator Ed Kolodziej look at some of the ways that regulators may need to account for these transformations.

Cole, EA, McBride, SA, Kimbrough, KC, Lee, J, Marchand, EA, Cwiertny, DM, Kolodziej, EP. (2015). Rates and product identification for trenbolone acetate metabolite biotransformation under aerobic conditions. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Volume: 34, Issue: 7, pgs. 1472-1484; DOI: 10.1002/etc.2962.

Read the full paper.

Ward, AS, Cwiertny, DM, Kolodziej, EP, Brehm, CC. (2015). Coupled reversion and stream-hyporheic exchange processes increase environmental persistence of trenbolone metabolites. Nature Communications. Volume: 6, Article Number 7067; DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8067.

Read the full paper. 

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