Pollution Smells Like Pumpkin PieJANUARY 10, 2009
- This is where sewage goes.
- (Joshua McNichols)
- View the Slideshow
- Sound Citizen
- Rick Keil's Aquatic Chemistry Lab at the University of Washington
- King County West Point Sewage Treatment Plant
- Molecule of the Day
- Letters: Ocean Pollution and Goodbyes
- Garageland: Hydrogen in the Garage
- Gas in Them Thar Hills
- Economy Down, Environment Up
More From Joshua McNichols
The holidays are over. Maybe you've joined a gym, started a new, healthy diet. It's been a week since you touched that plate of stale holiday cookies. But for the salmon in Puget Sound, the feast is just beginning. And their diet has been getting much worse. From Seattle, Joshua McNichols explains.
Liana Singh leans over a dock. She dips a plastic bottle into a tributary that feeds Puget Sound. "It's freezing!" Liana is helping the group Sound Citizen look for flavors in the water. Cinnamon and vanilla. Sage and rosemary. All the stuff we ate during the holidays.
Test tubes of Singh's water sample are fed into a mass spectrometer, back at the University of Washington. Jaqui Neibauer is the group's analyst. Her results tell a lot about what people have been eating lately. She points to a graph on her computer. "So here's cinnamon. So the one day after Thanksgiving, the amount nearly doubles. And then four days after Thanksgiving is when we see the spike. And then it kind of tapers off and goes back to a baseline of zero." At its peak, the flavor is so abundant, salmon can smell it.
There's another pulse of cinnamon before Christmas, following everyone's office parties. Chocolate spikes after Valentine's Day. Real vanilla spikes during the holidays, whereas artificial vanilla spikes during summer heat waves. "It's probably from ice cream," explains Neibauer.
The holiday flavor spikes are the most impressive. Neibauer calculated how many cookies people would need to eat in order to put that much flavor into the water. "During the holiday season, there's about 250 thousand cookies per day going into Puget Sound. That means that the average person is eating about 2 cookies per day."
And Neibauer knows those spices were actually eaten. That's because digested spices have their own unique chemical signature.
But doesn't our sewage get cleaned up? Well, yes, but Neibauer says it's more complicated than that. And that's how I ended up on a giant catwalk at King County's West Point Sewage Treatment Plant. Tour guide Casey Plank points down to a bubbly brown liquid coursing down an open trough. "We add a whole lot of bacteria, that makes it brown. We add oxygen, that makes it bubbly. This right here is a big cleaning party."
The water flows through one of the last defenses before our waste goes back into the Sound. It's a giant cesspool of bacteria. "It's a 50-50 gamble whether the bacteria are actually going to eat something," says Plank. "They may break something down, they may not. You have to assume that what's going down your drain, it's going to make a stop at a treatment plant, but then it's going to go back out. There's no magic happening here. Nothing just disappears. It is well known that if we're testing water from sewer lines, you are gonna find aspirin, medicines, cleaning products. Anything you can test for - you're gonna find it."
And scientists are finding more than just spices. Just ask oceanographer Rick Keil. "In a typical sample from Puget Sound, we'll see two or three hundred different chemicals that are in the water sample," says Keil.
Keil founded the group Sound Citizen. He wants to know what's killing Puget Sound. In the last couple of years, the Sound has developed huge dead zones. Bottom feeding fish are turning into hermaphrodites and can't reproduce. Orca whales are dying in unprecedented numbers. It's really hard to pinpoint specific causes, but Keil suspects it has to do with all the chemicals in the water. And the chemicals are coming from us.
"It's hard to think that just living your average life is having some harmful impact somewhere," concedes Keil. "The initial reaction was often 'I don't want to hear about it, it makes me depressed.'"
But then Keil had the idea of testing for spices. Now, when he and his students go around to schools, they can talk about the Cinnamon-flavored waters of Puget Sound. He waits for the audience to make the connection to the more toxic chemicals in our daily lives. "We can talk about the impact we have on the environment without feeling sad," he says. "It's not about everything being bad, it's about thinking of the connected nature of the earth and thinking about the ramifications of everything that we do."
Then he tells folks to read labels and avoid certain ingredients. People can also take their expired drugs, even aspirin, back to a pharmacy instead of flushing them down the toilet. And if they want to, they can join his volunteer army of sample collectors.
Out on the dock, I ask him the question no journalist can resist. Do the salmon caught during a spike in cinnamon taste better? Rick looks out at the water. He says he doesn't eat these fish. They're too contaminated.
Ingredients to Avoid for Ocean Health
By scanning the ingredients listed on common household products, you can avoid many of these unhealthy pollutants. Not everything nasty is listed on the label, but this list will help you reduce your health risk and environmental impact.