RICHLAND, Wash. – Large industries and toxic dump sites are no longer the only sources of major concern for water quality on the Columbia River. A study released today by the U.S. Geological Survey has found that our day-to-day lives have a major impact as well.
The study looked at nine cities along the river, from Wenatchee to Longview, Wash. Researchers detected hundreds of contaminants flowing from wastewater treatment effluent and storm water runoff from these cities.
Researchers found toxic contaminants like shampoo and pharmaceuticals – pollutants that are not removed from municipal waste purification processes, said USGS hydrologist Jennifer Morace.
“What goes down our drain does eventually get to the river,” Morace said. “The treatment plant does treat for the things that it was designed to do, which is nutrients and bacteria – that sort of thing. But they’re not designed to deal with the things that we’re putting down the drains now.”
Overall, Morace tested for 210 contaminants at wastewater treatment facilities. She detected 53 percent of those pollutants.
“Most of the stuff I looked for, I found,” Morace said.
But what really surprised her was the consistency with which she found personal care products and pharmaceuticals in the river at each city. The locations varied from dry to wet climates, large to small cities. She said she found 80 percent the compounds she was looking for in these categories.
“There were some differences in terms of which pharmaceuticals I was finding in each city, but the fact that we were finding that number of them in each city was surprising to me,” Morace said.
Researchers tested for 195 different stormwater runoff compounds – from PCBs to oil and grease. Morace said she found 58 percent of the compounds tested, but unlike wastewater effluent, these varied from location to location.
“It’s important to note that these are pathways and not sources. Really, society is the source of all these compounds,” she said.
Now that researchers better know what is in the river, Morace said, more work is needed to determine the effects on marine life, the ecosystem and people.
“We don’t have a lot of toxicity information yet to know what these concentrations mean,” Morace said. “That’s the hard part of our society that we live in today: trying to keep up with all the new compounds that are coming out. A lot of the things I was looking for are things that don’t have a lot of regulations yet.”
One way to reduce these pollutants is by buying – and using – different products, says Deb Marriott of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. She says people also have to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals, instead of flushing them down the toilet.
“It’s every one of us now. It’s not just one pipe or one factory or one smokestack causing the biggest part of the problem,” Marriott says. “The biggest part of the problem is us.”
Marriott says if individuals can decrease what’s going into the water system, then hopefully treatment plant technology won’t have to be revamped. She says continual, long-term monitoring should also be a part of the solution.
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