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Chemicals 'of concern' flowing into Puget Sound, affecting marine life, scientists say

King County officials identified what they are calling "chemicals of emerging concern" in the wastewater on Wednesday.

SEATTLE — Are the medications and products we use in our daily lives affecting wildlife in the Puget Sound? 

It's a question environmental toxicologists have been working to answer especially with endangered Southern Resident orcas in mind.

King County officials identified what they are calling "chemicals of emerging concern" in the wastewater on Wednesday. Local scientists are trying to help local officials prioritize the most harmful substances for marine life as chemicals enter the sound at alarming rates.

"I would say the number of chemicals that are in the environment are of concern," said Ruth Sofield, a professor of environmental toxicology at Western Washington University.

The Puget Sound is too often a dumping ground for hundreds of chemicals, according to researchers like Sofield.

Chemicals are making their way, "into wildlife, whether it's orcas or lower-trophic level organisms," Sofield said.

Another scientist, James Meador, recently retired from NOAA Fisheries after 32 years. He said he identified several hundred chemicals in the effluent that flows to the Sound.

"We detected a lot of chemicals in water and in fish," Meador said.

The chemicals were found in fish tissue specifically.

Chemicals deemed high-priority by researchers include antibiotics, antidepressants and even makeup -- like lipstick and mascara.

"Some of the chemicals that are in makeup can act like estrogens," Sofield said. "Those chemicals can be impacting reproduction of wildlife."

Wildlife like chinook salmon, Sofield said. Endangered Southern Resident orcas rely on chinooks to supplement their diet.

"If your food is unable to reproduce, then you have less food," Sofield said.

How do they enter the wastewater stream? Experts said the chemicals enter through pipes in your home or business.

Many are part of a stubborn category of chemicals called PFAS, short for pre- and polyfluoroalkyl substances but also referred to as "forever chemicals."

"PFAS were conceived in the 1940s and their prevalence is due to their ability to repel oil and water, and reduce friction, among other characteristics that are really valuable for a commercial product," said Erika Kinno, Resource Recovery Research and Policy Project Manager at the Wastewater Treatment Division of King County. 

"We call them sticky compounds," Meador said. "So they want to be in in lipid or tissue. So those accumulate in tissue, the fish, and up the food chain to orcas."

To combat this, scientists urged the public not to pour old medications down the toilet.

"Limit [your] use of unnecessary product products, like lotions, or take medicines only when needed," Sofield said.

They are also informing agencies of needed engineering improvements, as wastewater treatment plants are not currently able to remove chemicals like this.

"We are tracking and developing and implementing policies, and actions and work to eliminate PFAS and reduce its impacts," Kinno told the council on Wednesday.

They created a coordination group to try and tackle the issue.

There are currently several laws in Washington -- either in place or being considered in the legislature now -- that ban chemicals like PFAS in products.


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