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The impacts of rogue chemicals on Puget Sound

Fluoxetine hydrochloride. Photo: Meg (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/disowned/1125134972
Fluoxetine hydrochloride. Photo: Meg (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/disowned/1125134972

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 was already well-understood that local waters — and 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, then, has become not whether scientists will find these chemicals, but which 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.