[env-trinity] Salmon could be enjoying their vanilla-enhanced habitat...
trinityjosh at gmail.com
Tue Nov 17 20:33:35 PST 2009
Cocaine, Spices, Hormones Found in Drinking Water
National Geographic News <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/>
November 12, 2009
*This story is part of a special series that explores the global water
crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National
Geographic's Freshwater Web site.<http://www.nationalgeographic.com/freshwater/>
How's this for a sweet surprise? A team of researchers in Washington State
has found traces of cooking spices and flavorings in the waters of Puget
Sound. (See map.<http://maps.nationalgeographic.com/maps/map-machine#s=r&c=48.367198426439465,%20-122.51129150390626&z=7>)
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University of Washington associate professor Richard Keil heads the Sound
Citizen program, which investigates how what we do on land affects our
Keil and his team have tracked "pulses" of food ingredients that enter the
sound during certain holidays.
For instance, thyme and sage spike during Thanksgiving, cinnamon surges all
winter, chocolate and vanilla show up during weekends (presumably from
party-related goodies), and waffle-cone and caramel-corn remnants skyrocket
around the Fourth of July.
The Puget Sound study is one of several ongoing efforts to investigate the
unexpected ingredients that find their way into the global water supply.
Around the world, scientists are finding trace amounts of substances—from
sugar and spice to heroin, rocket fuel, and birth control—that might be
having unintended consequences for humans and wildlife alike.
When spices and flavorings are flushed out of a U.S. home, they travel to a
sewage-treatment facility, where most of them are removed.
In the area around Puget Sound, the University of Washington team found, the
spicy residues that remain in wastewater end up flowing into the sound's
Of all the flavors trickling downstream, artificial vanilla dominates the
sound, Keil said. For instance, the team found an average of about six
milligrams of artificial vanilla per liter of water sampled.
The region's sewage runoff contains more than 14 milligrams of vanilla per
liter. This would be like spiking an Olympic-size swimming pool with
approximately ten 4-ounce (113.4-gram) bottles of artificial vanilla.
For now, there's no evidence that a sweeter and spicier sound is a bad
thing—salmon, which can smell such flavors, could be enjoying their
vanilla-enhanced habitat, Keil said.
In an attempt to understand some of the consequences of spice in the water,
Keil and colleagues plan to study whether cooking ingredients harm the
reproduction of octopuses in Puget Sound.
Overall, he added, the spice project has become a successful recipe for
educating people, especially schoolkids, "that everything you do is
connected to the watershed."
The link from kitchen or bathroom to coast can also grease the path for some
rather unsavory substances, such as illegal drugs, experts have discovered.
After a person has taken drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and
ecstasy, active byproducts of these substances are released into the sewage
stream through that person's urine and feces.
These byproducts, or metabolites, are often not completely removed during
the sewage-treatment process, at least in Europe, said Sara Castiglioni of
the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan,
That means the drug-tainted wastewater can enter groundwater and surface
water, which are collectively the major sources of drinking water for most
(Related: "Cocaine on Money: Drug Found on 90% of U.S.
In a new review study, Castiglioni and colleague Ettore Zuccato found that
illegal drugs have become "widespread" in surface water in some of Europe's
For instance, in a 2008 study scientists discovered a byproduct of cocaine
in 22 of 24 samples of drinking water at a Spanish water-treatment
plant—despite a rigorous filtering and treatment process.
Likewise, in 2005, Zuccato found that a daily influx of cocaine travels down
the Po River<http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0205/feature6/index.html>,
Italy's longest river.
Though these drug traces are still tiny, it's possible that the potent
residues could be toxic to freshwater animals, according to the study, which
will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal *Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society A.*
For this reason, the "risks for human health and the environment cannot be
excluded," the study warns.
Scientists are also developing a clearer picture of how legal
pharmaceuticals and personal-care products—from antibiotics and morphine to
fragrances and sunscreen—are flooding our waterways.
For example, previous research had revealed that up to 44.1 pounds (20
kilograms) of pharmaceuticals flow down Italy's Po River each day.
Much like illegal drugs, traces of pharmaceuticals often filter through
traditional sewage-treatment processes.
These products are also found in many U.S. waterways, and studies have shown
that certain drugs may cause harm to the environment—though no evidence to
date has shown effects in people, according to the U.S. Environmental
Some of the drugs that mimic hormones, such as birth control, may also throw
off an animal's endocrine, or hormone-regulating, system. Some male fish in
the U.S., for example, have been growing female parts due to exposure to
Researching these substances is important, Castiglioni said, "because
[these] are quite unknown contaminants, and they are present in the
environment in huge amounts, especially for pharmaceuticals."
To control the flow of these substances, some experts have suggested
creating "green pharmacies," which would allow a consumer to send back their
drugs to a pharmacist or manufacturer instead of flushing them down the
toilet and into the wild.
Current EPA regulations say that more than 90 contaminants must be filtered
out of drinking-water systems, said Cynthia Dougherty, director of EPA's
Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water.
Viruses and other microorganisms are kept at bay, as are inorganic
substances such as lead, cyanide, copper, and mercury. Pollutants from
fertilizer runoff, such as nitrate and nitrite, are also removed.
In addition, the agency regularly studies new chemicals that may need
regulation. Of particular interest right now is perchlorate, a natural and
human-made chemical used in fireworks and rocket fuel, Dougherty said.
At sufficiently high doses, the chemical—found in at least 4 percent of U.S
drinking water—can reduce iodine uptake into a person's thyroid gland. If
continued long-term, reduced iodine can lead to hypothyroidism, according to
the agency, which is now seeking input on whether to regulate perchlorate.
Ultimately, "what you really want is to not ever have things you're
concerned about in drinking water in the first place," Dougherty said.
That's why it's crucial for local communities to keep a close eye on what
runs into their waterways, she said.
"If you have an understanding of what your source of drinking water is and
what can happen to it," Dougherty said, "you can be a more educated citizen
in engaging in those issues."
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