Tag Archives: toxic chemicals

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Eating fish from Puget Sound may be safe — within prescribed limits

For the past few years, I’ve been hearing that Washington’s water-quality standards are grossly out of date, especially when it comes to assumptions about how much fish people eat. Water-quality standards are a set of criteria used to determine when a body of water is “impaired” and to establish limits for discharges from industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants.

Fish

It was hard to understand how the Department of Ecology could assume that an average person was eating just 6.5 grams of fish a day. That’s less than a quarter-ounce. A typical meal of fish is commonly considered to be eight ounces (226.8 grams). So the assumption was that people were eating one meal of fish every 35 days.

The water quality standards come from an equation established to ensure that if you consumed a certain amount of fish, then your health would be protected. So it would seem logical that if you ate more than that amount, your health might be at risk.

That’s what got me started looking into the nuances of this discussion about water-quality standards and eating fish, especially fish from Puget Sound. The result was a two-part series published Sunday and Monday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) — Part 1 and Part 2 — and reprinted with permission on the website of Investigate West — Part 1 and Part 2.

I’ll talk about my new relationship with InvestigateWest at the bottom of this page, where I’ll also report on a new study about the protective effects of eating fish even when mercury levels are high.

The first thing to understand about water-quality standards is that the state has been relying on an equation created by the Environmental Protection Agency. That equation resulted in water quality standards used since 1992 across the nation and still in effect for some states (PDF 429 kb). The problem was that the EPA has not updated the nationwide standards, known as the National Toxics Rule, even while the federal agency has been pushing for states to come up with their own standards.

Obviously, the fish consumption rate was no longer valid, if it ever was. State and federal guidelines call for people to eat at least two or three meals of fish each week for health reasons. It is not uncommon for Native Americans to eat a meal of fish or more each day. Protecting the treaty rights of tribal members, which includes safely eating fish from their “usual and accustomed areas,” is a responsibility of the state and federal governments, I’m told.

Fish consumption is not the only issue, however. Other factors in the equation are also out of date. The EPA has updated estimates of toxicity for many of the 100 or so chemicals for which water-quality standards are listed. The weight of a person’s body in the equation also was changed.

Perhaps the most controversial change in the formula, as proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, is to increase the cancer risk rate for human health from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000.

I won’t go deeper into the calculation here, since you can read my story for more details, or look into the state’s “Overview of key decisions in rule amendment” (PDF 6.4 mb). But understand that all the assumptions taken together changed the final number for each of the 96 chemicals under review for Washington state. Also note that the vast majority of these chemicals are not even detectible in fish down to parts per billion.

Under Inslee’s proposal, the final number generated by the equation would be the new water-quality standard for a chemical if the number were lower (more protective) than the existing standard. For chemicals in which the number was higher (less protective), the old standard would remain.

The result was that 70 percent of the standards would become more stringent under Inslee’s proposal and 30 percent would stay the same, according to Ecology officials. To see the proposed changes between the old and new standards and whether the change in cancer risk would make a significant difference, check out “Human Health Criteria Review Documents” (PDF 2.9 mb).

Out of the 96 chemicals on the list, two create the greatest concerns for human health in Puget Sound waters. They are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury. For these chemicals, Inslee’s proposal would keep the water-quality standards the same. This is controversial, but his thinking is that these chemicals are widespread in the environment, and reducing their concentrations in effluent would have little effect on improving the safety of fish.

The governor has proposed a separate planning process with funding from the Legislature to track down and reduce the sources of pollution that cause the greatest health concerns — including some chemicals not on the EPA’s list.

Eating fish is especially important for pregnant mothers and young children, as I described in the first part of the series. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish tissue are considered essential for the proper development of the brain and neurological system, including memory and performance, as well as other health effects.

Health advisories tend to balance the beneficial effects of eating fish with the risks of getting too much PCBs, mercury and other harmful chemicals. The goal is to choose fish that are relatively low in toxic chemicals, knowing that practically all fish, meats and dairy products contain some contaminants.

New study on protective effects of fish

A new study in the Seychelles, an island country where people eat a lot of fish, suggests that polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish may provide some protection against the health risks of mercury, including neurological problems.

The study was published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” The report’s co-author, Edwin van Wijngaarden, associate professor at the University of Rochester’s Department of Public Health Sciences, had this to say in a news release:

“These findings show no overall association between prenatal exposure to mercury through fish consumption and neurodevelopmental outcomes. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the benefits of fish consumption may outweigh, or even mask, any potentially adverse effects of mercury.”

Because the findings are so new, I chose to stick to the standard health advisories in my Sunday story.

Laura Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said the advice to limit fish intake may not be warranted after all. But she is not ready to drop the cautionary approach, according to a story by Dennis Thompson of HealthDay magazine.

“More study needs to be done before you can convince me that the fish is actually protective,” she said. “I want to see the data.”

Legislative coverage

As most of you know, I have retired from the staff of the Kitsap Sun, but I’m still writing this blog and occasional stories for the newspaper, including the two-part series this week.

I was recently asked by InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group, to cover some environmental issues being debated in the Washington Legislature. I started this new assignment this week and expect to continue coverage to the end of the legislative session. My work is being funded through a crowd-sourcing website called Beacon. All contributions are appreciated.

Water quality is defined by its effect on sea life

We just completed another group of stories in the ongoing series we’re calling “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” This latest story package is about marine water quality and marine sediments. (The stories themselves require a subscription.)

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound
Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

For all my years of environmental reporting, I have to say that I’ve never really understood the meaning of water quality. Keeping the water free of chemicals and fecal bacteria is one thing. Safe levels of oxygen, temperature, acidity and suspended sediment are other important factors.

But in the real world, you never find ideal conditions. You take what you get: physical conditions dictated by weather, climate and bathymetry; a strange brew of toxic chemicals; and a mix of nutrients and organic material, all drifting through complex cycles of life and death.

Water quality means nothing without the context of living things. More than 1,000 species of tiny organisms live in or on the mud at the bottom of Puget Sound. In many areas, sensitive species have disappeared. We are left with those that can tolerate harsher conditions. Why are they dying off? What can be done about it?

Some plankton species are becoming more dominant, and the effects on the food web are unknown. When water quality is poor, Jellyfish are displacing forage fish, disrupting the food supply for larger fish.

We know that toxic chemicals are spilling into Puget Sound in stormwater and getting into the food web, first touching the tiniest organisms and eventually causing havoc for fish, marine mammals and humans. Compounds that mimic hormones are affecting growth, reproduction and survival for a myriad of species. Because of biomagnification, some chemicals are having serious effects at concentrations that could not be measured until recently.

Puget Sound can’t cleanse itself by flushing its chemicals and waste out to sea, as most bays do. Puget Sound is long and narrow and deep, and the exchange of water takes a long time. Most of the bad stuff floating in the water just sloshes back and forth with the daily tides.

We can’t forget that some of the good stuff floating around are microscopic plants that feed the food web, along with a variety of larvae that will grow into fish, shellfish and many other creatures. But many of these planktonic life forms are vulnerable to chemicals, which can reduce their ability to survive against predators, tipping the balance in unknown ways.

Understanding water quality is not so much about measuring what is in the water as understanding the effects on living things. Which species are missing from a given area of Puget Sound, and what killed them off?

Biological monitoring has been around for a long time, but we may be entering a new phase of exploration in which we begin to connect the dots between what takes place on the land, how chemicals and nutrients get into the water, and what that means for every creature struggling to survive.

We have some brilliant people working on this problem in the Puget Sound region. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me gain a better understanding of these issues, as I attempt to explain these complexities in my stories.

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While I was looking into the sediment story, Maggie Dutch of Ecology’s sediment monitoring team introduced me to a huge number of benthic invertebrates. In a blog she calls “Eyes Under Puget Sound,” she talks about the monitoring program and offers a slideshow of some of the bottom creatures. See also Ecology’s Flickr page.

For some amazing shots of polychaete worms, check out the work of marine biologist and photographer Alex Semenov who took these colorful pix in Russia and Australia.

Take special care to save carwashes from extinction

I used to feel happy for teenagers who got together on a weekend to wash cars and raise money for a good cause. I would often take time to drive in, get my car washed and praise the teens for their efforts. And I would give them a nice tip.

Now, when I see a charity carwash, I just want to know where the water is going. If the water is washing into a storm drain that spills into a stream, I can’t help but wonder if these kids care about fish and wildlife, or if they might not have gotten the message about the harm caused by dirty, soapy water.

You may wish to read the story I wrote on this topic in last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Sometimes, being an environmental reporter causes one to think a little too much about the environment. Sure, carwashes probably are not going to kill everything in sight. But they are just another insult from a human society that has not yet learned how to protect the living Earth.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 declared that it was illegal to discharge polluted water into any natural stream or waterway. At the time, industrial discharges were so severe that soap and heavy metals from carwashes were insignificant. But now, after 40 years, those industrial point sources are greatly diminished, and researchers are learning that the greatest threat to water quality today comes from thousands of small sources.

Gov. Jay Inslee has declared this month “Puget Sound Starts Here Month,” according to a press release issued by the Puget Sound Partnership. The idea is for each of us to pay attention to how we affect Puget Sound.

Here’s the message from Marc Daily, the partnership’s interim executive director:

“It’s not just about the pipe coming out of the factory anymore. Today, stormwater runoff is the single largest contributor to our water quality problems. That pollution comes from our cars and how we wash them, from the chemicals we put on our lawns, and from not picking up after our pets. When it rains, bacteria and toxic chemicals from these and other sources end up in our local waterways. That’s a problem.”

From King County Water and Land Resources
From King County Water and Land Resources

One way to keep charity car washes alive is to capture the wash water and direct it into a toilet or sink that connects to a municipal sewer system, not a septic system. King County provides instructions for making and using a carwash kit to handle the water.

People can also sell tickets to commercial carwashes, which is the method being pushed by most water-quality programs across the nation. It’s not just here that carwashes are getting increasing attention.

How much harm do they cause? It varies from place to place, but some students from Central Kitsap High School calculated the amount of various chemicals produced by capturing the water from washing cars and conducting lab tests on some of the pollutants. See “Characterization of Runoff from Charity Carwashes in the Dyes Inlet Watershed” (PDF 475 kb).

Like many people, I feel a tinge of sadness that carwashes will probably die out. Like many harmful traditions, such as burning garbage and smoking, it might be time to give this one up.

Still, if you want to operate a weekend car wash, get yourself a carwash kit to deal with the wash water. Then stand on the corner and wave signs promoting the fact that this is a clean and safe carwash that protects the environment. If I see you, I’ll even stop and donate to the cause.

‘Don’t Drip and Drive’ offers one approach to oil leaks

I would like to share some comments from a story along with an editorial cartoon, but first I want to talk about rain runoff from streets, driveways, parking lots, yards and roofs — also known as stormwater.

Stormwater is considered the greatest pollution threat to Puget Sound, according to studies by the Washington Department of Ecology. Of course, it is not the rain itself that causes the problem. It is what gets picked up along the way: chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, bacteria … The list goes on.

Cameron Coleman finishes up an oil change on a car at Hockett & Olsen Automotive on Bainbridge Island, where car owners can obtain a free oil-leak inspection. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid
Cameron Coleman finishes up an oil change on a car at Hockett & Olsen Automotive on Bainbridge Island, where car owners can obtain a free oil-leak inspection.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid

Among the toxic chemicals, one of the biggest problems appears to be motor oil from vehicles. Oil leaks out of cars as they are moving down the road or while they are parked, then the rains wash the pollution into the nearest ditch and eventually into Puget Sound. By some estimates, that amounts to 7 million quarts of oil each year.

Fortunately, not all the oil goes into the water. In Kitsap County, for example, city and county street sweepers are driving around, picking up some of the oil and other chemicals along with soil particles on the roads. It is a proven effort to reduce pollution.

It would be better still if the oil didn’t get on the roads or parking lots in the first place. But how do you get people to fix the oil leaks in their cars?

An organization of local governments throughout the Puget Sound region is hoping that awareness will provide one answer. More than 80 service shops in the region have agreed to check for oil leaks at no cost or obligation to anyone. See my story in last Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.

It’s a pilot program with the clever title “Don’t Drip and Drive.” It will run through April. The cost to the government is the cost of advertising on the radio. A federal stormwater permit issued to local governments throughout the region already requires that they try to educate the public. Maybe this campaign will work; maybe it won’t. I’ll report on the results after the program is over.

It seems like a simple approach to the problem. Even if people know their cars are leaking, this program encourages them to think about solutions. Why not get a free estimate to see what it would cost to fix the leak? Maybe it won’t cost much. Maybe a few people will find a way to address the problem sooner rather than later. Maybe it will reduce wear on their vehicles.

If people become informed and are offered a free, no-obligations solution, will it make a difference? I hope it does, because it avoids the more heavy-handed ideas, such as requiring vehicle inspections to obtain a car license.

If you read some of the comments at the end of the story, however, you might think this pilot program is intruding into people’s personal lives, not just asking them to check for oil leaks. I realize that the comments section can be a dark place, occupied by people who see a full glass as empty. But it is amusing to see what bothers some people.

Here are the first few comments:

“I would guess that 99% of drivers park their vehicle in the same spot in their driveway or garage every night. Do we need a government program so they won’t have to look at that spot to see if oil has dropped there?”

“I agree! Government is way outside of what they are supposed to be. This is ridiculous and out of control.”

“Yep so they find a leak and what’s next??? Big time repair bill and just in time to keep your wallet empty! Nice program! Big goverment (sic) get out of my life will you???”

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’d like to share with you an editorial cartoon by Milt Priggee published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

Oil

Group offers ideas to reduce harm from chemicals

Washington state can better protect people’s health by deliberately stepping up to the problem toxic chemicals in the environment, according to a new task force report provided to the Washington governor and Legislature.

The task force, organized by the Washington Department of Ecology, includes representatives from the world of business, government and public health. The new “white paper” calls for specific, creative actions to reduce potential harm caused by chemical exposures.

Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, served on the task force. He said worrisome health trends and rising health-care costs provide evidence of the problem. As he stated in a news release:

“We don’t know as much as we’d like about how toxic chemicals affect health, but we can’t wait. We need to act, and we need to do so in ways that are sensible, fair and evidence-based. I believe that our state can come together to identify and implement creative, effective solutions.”

Another member of the group, Sara Kendall, vice president for corporate affairs and sustainability at Weyerhaeuser Company, added:

“These issues are important, but they are also very complex. The white paper represents a good starting place for a more complete and thorough discussion by stakeholders.”

Because of the diverse membership on the committee, the overall conclusions seem to be derived more from common sense rather than from a desire to expand government oversight.

“Although we each individually have our preferences and concerns, across this suite of ideas we all share a belief that we, as a society, can do a better job reducing the adverse health, environmental and economic impacts of toxic chemicals,” states a letter accompanying the report.

Download the white paper, titled Toxics Policy Reform for Washington State (PDF 1.5 mb), or visit the Toxics Reduction Strategy Workgroup on the Washington Department of Ecology’s website.

Ecology’s new director, Maia Bellon, said:

“These proposed strategies come from knowledgeable experts working alongside the Department of Ecology. The idea now is to begin a broader conversation about how to build on our state’s past accomplishments to reduce toxic chemicals.”

The white paper contains 12 recommendations for dealing with toxic chemicals, including a proposed state policy that would say simply, “Safer is better.”

Task force members suggest setting up a “Green Chemistry Center” to identify or invent safer chemicals for specific purposes.

“Washington should become a national leader in green chemistry, making these innovations a trademark of the state, just like apples, wheat, software and airplanes,” the paper says.

The report calls for continuing state actions to reduce exposures to a list of priority chemicals and to add chemicals with toxic effects at very low doses, such as endocrine-disrupting compounds.

Chemical bans and restrictions may be necessary at times, the paper says, but such regulations “should not strand people or businesses by banning or restricting chemicals before safer alternatives are viable.”

The Legislature should consider exemptions when a chemical is absolutely needed for a process or product, the paper says. Still, an imminent public health threat might at times justify an outright ban before a safer alternative is identified.

Education campaigns and effective product labeling can help people take personal actions to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals, the committee said.

As for why members of the task force feel strongly that Washington should not wait to address hazardous chemicals, let me quote from the report, which first discusses toxic effects on children:

“The developing nervous system is exquisitely sensitive to perturbation by chemicals and other insults. Environmental chemicals thought to be association with impaired brain development include lead, methyl mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), manganese, organophosphate insecticides, arsenic, Bisphenol-A (BPA), PBDEs and phthalates.

“Autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) appear to result from a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors. In Washington state in 2010, more than 75,000 children — one in every 14 kids — ages 3-21 were receiving special education services through school districts for learning disability, emotional or behavioral disability, autism, intellectual disability or developmental delay….

“Adults also are impacted by exposures to toxic chemicals. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia are growing problems, and evidence suggests that chemical exposures may play a role. For example, pesticides, solvents, PCBs, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and heavy metals such as lead and manganese have all been linked to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.

“There are troubling toxic releases to the environment as well. More than 1,700 water body segments in Washington are impaired due to high levels of toxic chemicals or metals. The Puget Sound Toxics Loading Assessment found that the vast majority of toxic chemicals in Puget Sound come from non-point sources and are released to Puget Sound through stormwater.”

Washington State Department of Health also weighs in on the effects of environmental chemicals on children, offering fact sheets on childhood asthma, cancer, learning and behavior, obesity, and reproductive systems:

“Young children often have higher exposure to environmental chemicals in the home because of their higher breathing rate and natural activity of mouthing or sucking on household objects and surfaces.

“There are critical periods during early childhood development when small exposures to toxic chemicals can have permanent negative effects. Without efforts to protect children during early life, lifelong health can be negatively impacted.”

Killer whales: Learning from the experts

If you missed Orca Network’s “Ways of Whales Workshop” on Jan. 26, you can still learn a lot from the videos recorded at the workshop on Whidbey Island.

Toxic chemicals in the environment constitute one of the great threats to killer whales, which are among the most polluted animals in the world. Toxicologist Peter Ross of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans always does a great job in explaining the problem in simple terms and putting the issue into its full context.

Peter’s talk, shown in the video on this page, includes current topics, such as oil transport into the Salish Sea and other potential toxic threats. He provides a good history and background on the topic up until 30 minutes into his talk, when he begins to focus strongly on the issue of toxic chemicals and ways to address the problem.

The video cuts off at about 52 minutes, but Peter’s talk continues in a second video. Here’s the YouTube link to Part 2.

The other presentations at the “Ways of Whales Workshop” contain a ton of interesting information. Orca Network has been generous to post links to each of the talks on a single page on the Orca Network website.

Highway runoff can kill coho before they can spawn

Stormwater runoff from highways has been found to contain one or more toxic compounds that can bring on sudden death in coho and possibly other salmon as well.

Researchers Kate Macneale (left) and Julann Spromberg place a coho salmon into a tub of stormwater at Grover's Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. Their studies have revealed that urban stormwater can kill coho before they are able to spawn in a stream. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Royal / Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Researchers Kate Macneale (left) and Julann Spromberg place a coho salmon into a tub of stormwater at Grover’s Creek Hatchery. Their studies have revealed that urban stormwater can kill coho before they are able to spawn.
Photo: Tiffany Royal/Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center first noticed the problem in Seattle’s Longfellow Creek, which gets a high volume of stormwater when it rains. Returning adult coho were dying in the stream before they could spawn.

The problem was confirmed last fall at Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap, where coho were placed into tanks containing highway runoff. Even after days of rain, the runoff was deadly, causing the fish to become disoriented and die within hours. This was not a disease process but a severe physiological disruption of the salmon’s metabolism.

On Monday, I reported on these dramatic new findings made by Nat Scholz and his colleagues at NOAA. Since then, the story was picked up by the Associated Press and has appeared in dozens of publications and news digests across the country.

I won’t go into detail about the study here, because most of what I know is the story. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 21. Toward the end, I describe some actions that Kitsap County officials are taking to keep highway dirt and debris from getting into local streams, even before the deadly compounds are identified.

I’ll continue to follow this story as scientists try to narrow down the list of possible toxic compounds that are causing the problem. The next step will be to take clues from tissues removed from the dying salmon at Grover’s Creek Hatchery.

Naturally, these new findings raise many questions about how the unknown chemicals affect the fish so rapidly and where these compounds come from. Could it be from automobile tires or exhaust, or could it be something in the road material itself? Are certain chemicals acting synergistically to heighten the problem? Answering these questions could make a significant difference for urban streams and possibly for rural streams as well.

Personally, I can’t help wondering about the salmon that survive. It’s not easy to find a coho stream where highway runoff does not contribute something to the flow. If these compounds can kill a fish in concentrations found in stormwater, what are they doing to fish exposed to lower concentrations? Are the salmon that survive as successful in finding a mate and conducting their spawning rituals as salmon not exposed at all?

I’m not sure where this line of research will lead, but the early implications appear to be quite serious. On an optimistic note, if the compounds can be identified, Washington state has a reputation for reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals at the source.

More results, more questions found in toxic studies

Five years of studies and analysis have helped refine our understanding about the toxic pollution getting into the streams of Puget Sound and eventually into the open marine waters.

The latest study on toxic chemicals (PDF 3.1 mb) Click on image to download

The final report in the series was released yesterday, prompting a story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun.

When accounting for all the pollution, it’s not surprising to learn that the sources of toxic chemicals are so diverse that it is difficult to figure out where everything is coming from. But we do know that if chemicals are picked up in stormwater, they are likely to make their way into freshwater, where they pose short-term or long-term risks to aquatic organisms.

The solutions are common sense, if one can be assured of the sources of harmful chemicals:

  1. Remove materials from the environment if they are found to release toxic pollution. This can involve a legal ban on certain products or else educating people to select less toxic alternatives.
  2. Reduce the amount of stormwater that flows into streams by infiltrating rainwater into the ground before it leaves the site. This “low-impact development” can include permeable pavement, rain gardens and even natural forests where a thick organic carpet has been retained.
  3. Clean sediment out of storm drains and sweep up the dust on city streets and other areas where toxic chemicals are likely to reside in metallic form or be bound to soil particles. Safely dispose of these materials. When the rains arrive, there won’t be much left to wash into streams.

While all this sounds simple enough, the issue gets complicated when trying to decide which products to ban and when to recommend that people voluntarily stop using certain items. Alternative products may cost more, which tends to raise questions among users. Also, manufacturers and retailers are not likely to give up selling profitable products without a fight.

Further complicating the situation is the scientific uncertainty surrounding the alleged harm when someone declares a product not good for the environment. Such uncertainty inevitably sparks scientific, economic and policy debate about whether the proposed action is justified.

For example, the Washington Legislature approved a ban on automobile brake pads containing certain levels of copper. Brake pads are believed to release enough copper to harm salmon in some urban streams. But the metallic form of copper found in brake pads is not toxic until it is converted to an ionic form. How much gets converted in the environment is still a question. For details, see a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March of 2010.

As for the latest study released yesterday, some additional focused research and debate may be needed before further actions can be taken.

For example, questions are raised about the total amount of toxic metals leached from roofing materials, including common asphalt shingles. Copper, cadmium, lead and zinc are listed as contaminants along with diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP).

As suggested by the report, direct studies of roofs in the Puget Sound region could help determine the potential harm of various roofing materials and suggest whether bans or advisories are appropriate.

The amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) coming from creosote-treated wood was something of a surprise in the report. If anything, the findings tend to support the ongoing effort by the Department of Natural Resources, which has been removing creosote pilings from shorelines. Further studies might help to focus removal efforts in areas most sensitive to creosote compounds.

The latest report, which includes discussions about the uncertainties, is called “Assessment of Selected Toxic Chemicals in the Puget Sound Basin, 2007-2011.” You may also wish to review all the toxics work to date on Ecology’s webpage called “Control of Toxic Chemicals in Puget Sound.”

A new perspective on creosote log removal

I’ve always wondered how much ecological good comes from removing old creosote pilings from along the shoreline, as the Washington Department of Natural Resources has been doing in its Creosote Removal Program.

A helicopter transports logs out of the salt marsh at Doe-Keg-Wats near Indianola in Kitsap County
Kitsap Sun photo by Meagan Reid

I was given a new perspective on the problem Tuesday, when I visited the Doe-Keg-Wats estuary. (See my story in Wednesday’s Kitsap Sun.) Now I am better able to see the value of removing creosote logs. Still, I wish a few more quantitative field studies would be done.

We all know that creosote, generally made from coal tar, contains numerous toxic chemicals. A study completed in 2006 for the National Marine Fisheries Service, titled “Creosote-Treated Wood in Aquatic Environments: Technical Review and Use Recommendations” (PDF 1.7 mb) talks about the many toxic constituents (p. 52), routes of exposure (p. 53-54) and toxicity (p. 54-65).

The report draws this important conclusion (p. 84):

“Overall, the laboratory and field studies described above indicate that treated wood structures can leach PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other toxic compounds into the environment. However, the degree of PAH accumulation to sediment associated with these structures appears to be relatively minor in many settings, particularly in well-circulated waters….

“Nevertheless, there are several factors that suggest that a precautionary principle might be applicable to certain treated wood uses. First, the above studies typically have evaluated responses at the community level (e.g., the benthic invertebrate studies) or to tolerant life stages (e.g., adult oysters and mussels). However, the level of environmental protectiveness applied to T&E (threatened and endangered) species (such as endangered salmonids) should occur at the individual rather than the population or community level.

“Moreover, field studies have indicated that PAHs can accumulate to potentially deleterious concentrations in poorly circulated water bodies or when the density of treated wood structures is high compared to the overall surface area of the water body. As a result, site-specific evaluations of risk should be conducted for treated wood projects that are proposed for areas containing sensitive life stages, species of special concern, or where water circulation and dilution are potentially low….”

This brings us to Doe-Keg-Wats, which appears to be one of the most pristine estuaries in the Puget Sound Region. Take a look at the aerial photo at the bottom of this page.

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