Category Archives: Research

I confess: When it comes to toxic chemicals, I trusted the FDA too long

Bisphenol A has been creating a dilemma for me since I first heard that it could disrupt normal hormone function in people and animals.

BPA chemical structure

BPA, as the chemical is known, is produced in large quantities, sold around the world, and used in many products — including food cans, plastic bottles, toys and even sales receipts you might be handed at a retail store. Exposure is widespread, with detectable levels of BPA found in at least 93 percent of Americans who are 6 years old or older.

As part of my daily routine, I check out research reports on a variety of environmental and water-related subjects. It seems like there is a never-ending stream of reports, numbering in the thousands, that continue to find problems with even low exposures to BPA.

And there’s the root of my dilemma. The federal Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for protecting us from tainted food and drink, keeps telling us that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure. Check out the statement from the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff.

In 2008, I informed readers (Water Ways, April 11, 2008) that I was searching for and throwing out my drinking-water bottles likely to contain BPA. My actions were based on alarms raised by researchers, including those at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. For years, I’ve wanted to provide firm, up-to-date advice about BPA, but I guess I’ve been unduly stymied by my faith in the FDA.

With those thoughts in mind, I called Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University’s Center for Reproductive Biology. Pat has studied the science of BPA for many years. One of the problems leading to the FDA’s position, she told me, is that government officials don’t want to give up the long-held toxicological approach to regulating chemicals.

Under the old-fashioned system, the more exposure one receives to a harmful chemical, the worse the health problems are likely to be. So the FDA determines a safe level and expects everyone to comply. But that system does not always work for hormones or for chemicals that act like hormones — such as BPA.

When would a higher dose of a chemical produce a lesser effect? Hormones often work in partnership with a receptor — like a key in a lock — to produce a biological response. A chemical that mimics a hormone may produce an inappropriate and even harmful biological response. Starting at extremely low doses, things may get worse as the dose is increased. But at some level the hormone receptors may become saturated, causing the biological effect to diminish as doses continue to increase.

This is just an example, but hormones and related synthetic chemicals may not react in the same way. Their dose-response curve may even be different for different organs of the body.

That is one problem with the toxicological system under which the government operates, according to Pat Hunt and two other researchers who wrote an opinion piece in the journal “Nature Reviews: Endocrinology.” In the article, she and the other authors praise an extensive — and expensive — research project launched by the federal government to identify the harmful effects of BPA. The project goes by the hopeful name CLARITY, which stands for Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on Toxicity of Bisphenol A.

The project was insightful, they argue, but only if FDA officials are willing to look at the limitations of the study’s design and avoid rejecting findings from academic researchers that might not fit an expected pattern.

“Although, ideally, a consensus between the approaches should be possible,” their article states, “differences in research culture made the CLARITY effort akin to expecting a group of folk and punk rock musicians to pick
up their instruments and play together 
in harmony.”

Low-dose effects were found in the data of many studies and should have set off alarm bells, they say. Exposure for animals in the developmental stages are particularly concerning, and the effects may not show up until the animal becomes a sexually mature adult.

“Taken together, these data suggest that low-dose BPA exposure induces subtle developmental changes that act to impair the endocrine, reproductive, neurobiological and immune system of adult rats,” states the article, which goes into far more detail than I can cover here.

BPA has gotten a lot of public attention, which has encouraged manufacturers to replace BPA with other chemicals and advertise their products as “BPA free.” The problem is that the substitutes may be just as bad or worse, according to researchers. In fact, some of the substitutes have been banned in Washington state, so companies are off to the next replacement chemicals.

The problem is that the modern world is filled with chemicals that have not been adequately tested for safety, Pat told me. Ideally, the chemicals would have been tested before they went on the market, but that’s not how things were done in the past. Now the government is challenged to identify chemicals on the market that cause health problems even while people are being continually exposed.

The current Trump administration seems to have little interest in this topic, even though a new federal law signed in 2016 by former President Barack Obama was designed to address the problem. I wrote about this for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016, along with a story about “rogue chemicals” in the environment.

“A lot of us feel that, to come up with a safe level of exposure, some of these chemicals should not even be in the products they are in,” Pat said.

In explaining this difficult problem to the parents of young children, she sometimes holds up a package of birth-control pills and asks, “How much of this should I be allowed to give your child?” Parents don’t want their child to have any, she said, yet we live in a world in which children are ingesting such chemicals, like it or not.

I had thought that the FDA had at least banned BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and other products that could increase exposure to children at a critical time of their development. But that was not the case. The agency had simply “abandoned” its approval of such uses, because companies had changed their products voluntarily.

“An amendment of the food additive regulations based on abandonment is not based on safety but is based on the fact that the regulatory authorization is no longer necessary,” the FDA emphasized in a fact sheet.

In other words, the FDA has never changed its stance on BPA. Meanwhile, a number of states have taken steps to protect children. Some — like Washington — have gone further to protect more of the population. But others have done nothing.

So what can people do about BPA and other chemical concerns?

“You can ask for what you want,” Pat said. “I always tell consumers that they can vote with their pocketbooks.”

Personally, I have cut back on canned foods, because BPA is used to reduce metal corrosion, although it can leach into foods — especially acidic foods. I no longer heat food or drinks in plastic containers, and I’m slowly converting to glass for storing food on the shelf and in my refrigerator.

For more information and tips about what you can do, check out these sources:

Native Olympia oysters expected to gain a new foothold in Sinclair Inlet

A massive amount of oyster shell — some 1,500 cubic yards — will be dumped into Sinclair Inlet near Gorst next week to lay the groundwork for a healthy population of native Olympia oysters.

Native Olympia oysters are smaller and can easily fit inside the more common Pacific oyster shell. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Limited numbers of Olympia oysters have been growing in Sinclair Inlet, hanging on since long ago, said Betsy Peabody, executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which is managing the operation. Existing oysters probably just need the right substrate for their larvae to attach, grow and ultimately expand the native oyster population.

The $300,000 project — which will deposit the equivalent of 150 dump-truck loads of Pacific oyster shells — will be the largest one-time application of shells anywhere in Puget Sound, Betsy told me. Her organization has undertaken similar projects in other areas, including Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, Dogfish Bay near Keyport, Dyes Inlet near Bremerton and Port Gamble Bay on Hood Canal.

The yellow area marks the location in Sinclair Inlet where oyster shell will be placed.
Map: Puget Sound Restoration Fund

The shells, which came from commercial oyster farms, will be washed off a 200-foot barge using a jet of water beginning Tuesday and taking up to four days, according to the current schedule. The shell will cover some 15 acres of tidelands toward the middle of the inlet where Highway 166 branches off Highway 16.

This washing process typically creates a patchwork of shell covering about 80 percent of the bottom while 20 percent remains bare, according to plans for the project. The thickness of shell on the bottom will vary, reaching up to 3 inches in some places. No eelgrass or other sensitive vegetation was found during surveys of the tidelands to be covered. The property is owned by Kitsap County.

Historic locations of major Olympia oyster beds in Puget Sound. (circa 1850)
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

In the early 1900s, Sinclair Inlet was used as an 122-acre oyster reserve for protecting seed stock, which could be purchased by commercial oyster growers. Oyster reserves throughout Puget Sound were largely forgotten after Pacific oysters — a different species imported from Japan — began to dominate the oyster market.

Olympias went extinct in some areas, killed by pollution, shoreline development or other factors. In a few areas, habitat was largely undisturbed and the original oyster species persevered. But many embayments, including Sinclair Inlet, were able to support only a fraction of their historic populations.

“Olys evolved in this area and managed to maintain a foothold in the most surprising areas, despite what we’ve thrown at them over time,” Betsy said. “They are tough little critters. You can even find them in places where everything else is plastic. Building back their densities seems like a good thing to do.”

Oysters have a number of good qualities besides being a favorite food of many people. They can filter out plankton that can trigger low-oxygen conditions. Plankton also reduce sunlight needed for critical vegetation, such as eelgrass.

The 19 areas in Puget Sound declared a high priority for Olympia oyster restoration.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated Sinclair Inlet as one of 19 priority restoration sites for Olympia oysters in the Puget Sound region. See “Plan for Rebuilding Olympia Oyster (Ostrea lurida) Populations in Puget Sound…”(PDF 559 kb)

In natural oyster beds, young oysters are able to set and grow on the shells of their ancestors, often forming oyster beds or reefs that help perpetuate the substrate for future generations. Sedimentation and damage to the shoreline can interrupt the process and eliminate the substrate needed for the oyster to survive. Putting down a lot of shell to create new substrate has proven to be the best way to boost the population in most areas of Puget Sound.

If the Olympia oysters do well in Sinclair Inlet, eventually more shell could be brought in to expand the growing area, Betsy said. If, however, natural production of oyster larvae is not enough, PSRF could develop a broodstock program by utilizing its shellfish hatchery near Manchester, as has been done for other areas. If that were to happen, adequate numbers of Olympia oysters from Sinclair Inlet would be used to produce the oyster seed, thus maintaining the genetic diversity of the inlet.

In 2010, Puget Sound Restoration Fund established a goal of restoring 100 acres of Olympia oyster habitat with shell placed in bays where the native oysters are expected to do well. The Sinclair Inlet project will bring the total to 85 acres, with other areas in the planning stage to help the group meet its goal by the end of next year.

About half of the $300,000 being used for the Sinclair Inlet project came from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, with other funding from the Washington Department of Ecology, Kitsap County and PSRF. The Suquamish Tribe also participated in the project.

Other information:

Yearlong pumping test will help define aquifers across Kitsap Peninsula

An unprecedented yearlong pump test of a deep water well in Central Kitsap is expected to provide a wealth of new information about our underground water supplies.

Joel Purdy, hydrogeologist for Kitsap Public Utility District, checks the flow at Newberry Hill Well 2, which is being pumped at 1,000 gallons per minute for a full year. // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The 900-foot-deep well, off Newberry Hill Road, will be pumped continuously for a year, drawing water at a rate of 1,000 gallons per minute. Drawdown effects of the high pumping rate will be measured in 56 other wells — including those operated by Silverdale Water District, Kitsap Public Utility District, the city of Bremerton, North Perry Water District, Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and others.

The pump test is designed to better define the extent of aquifers throughout Central Kitsap while increasing the accuracy of a groundwater model developed to predict water supplies across the Kitsap Peninsula.

“This is going to be one of the best data-gathering tests,” said Joel Purdy, hydrogeologist for Kitsap Public Utility District. “Hydrogeologists dream of doing this kind of aquifer test.”

Continue reading

Orcas hunting for salmon: Not worth the effort in Puget Sound?

Trying to understand what motivates Puget Sound’s killer whales is difficult enough when the orcas are nearby. But now that they have abandoned their summer home — at least for this year — researchers are not able to easily study their behaviors, their food supply or their individual body conditions.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, was thought to be in good health when he went missing.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

Not so many years ago, we could expect the orcas to show up in the San Juan Islands in May, presumably to feast on spring chinook returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia and to streams in northern Puget Sound. Those chinook have dwindled in number, along with other populations of chinook in the Salish Sea, so it appears that the orcas may not come back at all.

Apparently, they have decided that it isn’t worth their time and effort to set up a summer home in the inland waterway. They have gone to look for food elsewhere, such as off the west coast of Vancouver Island, where it is harder for researchers to tell what they are eating and exactly where they are going.

Continue reading

Three more orca deaths take census count down to 73 Southern Residents

Four orca deaths and two births over the past year brings the official population of southern resident killer whales to 73 — the lowest number since the annual census was launched in 1976.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, is among three southern resident orcas newly listed as deceased. Here he is seen catching a salmon. // Photo: Center for Whale Research

This evening, the keeper of the census — Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research — sadly announced the deaths of three orcas who have not been seen for several months.

In past years, Ken waited until he and his staff have several opportunities to search for any whales that appear to be missing. But this year the whales have stayed almost entirely away from their traditional hunting grounds in the San Juan Islands, where they once stayed for nearly the full summer.

In an unusual move this year, Ken relied on reliable observers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other biologists along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The missing whales were not seen during multiple encounters with the Canadians, Ken told me.

The reason the whales have not spent any time in Puget Sound is fairly obvious, Ken said. Their primary prey, chinook salmon, have not been around either.

Continue reading

Climate Sense: Arctic burns as climate issues gain political attention

It’s next to impossible to keep up with all the new information coming out about climate change, but I thought I would share some new reports that I found interesting.

For the first three months of this year, I provided a weekly report called “Climate Sense.” I am still trying to gauge how often to write these posts or drop them altogether. I am not conducting original reporting; I’m just offering some reading material. Perhaps regular readers of this blog prefer their own news sources. As always, I am open to suggestions.

Continue reading

Fisheries innovations credited with West Coast groundfish recovery

The dramatic recovery of many groundfish species along the West Coast is a testament to the innovation, cooperation and persistence by fisheries managers and fishermen alike under the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976.

Pacific whiting, sorted by size
Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service

One of the latest innovations, formally approved last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is “electronic monitoring,” which allows the use of video and other equipment in place of the human observers needed to ensure the accuracy of harvest reports.

The faster-then-expected recovery of depleted populations — including canary rockfish, bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific Ocean perch — has led to dramatically increased harvest limits this year. NMFS estimates that increased fishing will add 900 jobs and $60 million in income this year alone. Recreational anglers are expected to go fishing an additional 219,000 times, mostly in California with some of those outings in Oregon and Washington, according to a news release.

Going from a federally declared disaster in 2000 to today’s recovery of most stocks was the result of a monumental change in fisheries management and fishing culture. One of the biggest changes was a shift to “catch shares,” in which each commercial fisherman receives a percentage of the allowable harvest each year, an issue I first wrote about a decade ago (Water Ways, Dec. 11, 2009).

Continue reading

Hood Canal blooms again, as biologists assess role of armored plankton

In what is becoming an annual event, portions of Hood Canal have changed colors in recent days, the result of a large bloom of armored plankton called coccolithophores.

Coccolithophore from Hood Canal’s Dabob Bay viewed with scanning electron microscope.
Image: Brian Bill, Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Teri King, a plankton expert with Washington Sea Grant, has been among the first to take notice of the turquoise blooms each year they occur.

“Guess who is back?” Teri wrote in the blog Bivalves for Clean Water. “She showed up June 24 in Dabob Bay and has been shining her Caribbean blueness throughout the bay and spreading south toward Quilcene Bay.”

Yesterday, I noticed a turquoise tinge in Southern Hood Canal from Union up to Belfair, although the color was not as intense as I’ve seen in past years.

The color is the result of light reflecting off elaborate platelets of calcium carbonate, called coccoliths, which form around the single-celled coccolithophores. The species in Hood Canal is typically Emiliania huxleyi.

Continue reading

Amusing Monday: Mysterious shipworms brought back for study

The vessel, though her masts be firm,
Beneath her copper bears a worm….

Far from New England’s blustering shore,
New England’s worm her hulk shall bore,
And sink her in the Indian seas,
Twine, wine, and hides, and China teas.

Selected lines from “Though All the Fates,” Henry David Thoreau

Tall-masted wooden ships of a bygone era were often plagued by shipworms, which could turn a ship’s hull into something resembling swiss cheese. Many shipwrecks were blamed on structural weakness caused by shipworms, of which there are an amazing variety of species.

Shipworms are not actually worms but long, skinny clams. It turns out that the slimy mollusks are well known among residents of the Philippines, where the elongated clams are hunted in unusual places and eaten with delight. Stories of strange freshwater shipworms in the Philippines have been tracked down by researchers, who are making new discoveries about these ancient creatures.

In a research paper published last month, an international team of scientists reported on a shipworm that eats rocks. Like the shipworms that eat wood, this newly described species uses the shell at the end of its body for burrowing. The difference is that the rock-boring clam seems to grind up and digest rocks while excreting sandy fragments.

Continue reading

Orca researchers spot newest member of J pod and find that she’s a girl!

UPDATE, JULY 8, 2019

The Center for Whale Research today released notes of Friday’s encounter with J pod, including the newest one, J-56.
——

The baby killer whale first seen at the end of May (Water Ways, June 1) has been identified as a female by the Center for Whale Research, after members of J and K pods were observed in the San Juan Islands on Friday.

The newest Puget Sound orca, J-56, with her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

It was the first time that any of the orcas have been seen in Puget Sound waters in more than two months, the center noted in a written statement. Years ago, all three pods of southern residents would typically return to the inland waters in late May or early June. Their absence in recent years has been blamed on a shortage of chinook salmon — their primary prey.

On Friday, the arrival of J and K pods was welcomed by a crowd of people at Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island, where observers are able to watch the whales from shore.

“Near Pile Point, San Juan Island, the new mother J-31 swam around in circles with her new calf and three other young females,” the center reported. “It looked very much like they were showing off this new addition to the population. In a very brief moment, the baby popped to the surface with its underside exposed, revealing it was a female!

Continue reading