Puget Sound salmon are on drugs — Prozac, Advil, Benadryl, Lipitor, even cocaine.
Those drugs and dozens of others are showing up in the tissues of juvenile chinook, researchers have found, thanks to tainted wastewater discharge.
The estuary waters near the outfalls of sewage-treatment plants, and effluent sampled at the plants, were cocktails of 81 drugs and personal-care products, with levels detected among the highest in the nation.
The medicine chest of common drugs also included Flonase, Aleve and Tylenol. Paxil, Valium and Zoloft. Tagamet, OxyContin and Darvon. Nicotine and caffeine. Fungicides, antiseptics and anticoagulants. And Cipro and other antibiotics galore.
Why are the levels so high? It could be because people here use more of the drugs detected, or it could be related to wastewater-treatment plants’ processes, said Jim Meador, an environmental toxicologist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and lead author on a paper published this week in the journal Environmental Pollution.
“The concentrations in effluent were higher than we expected,” Meador said. “We analyzed samples for 150 compounds and we had 61 percent of them detected in effluent. So we know these are going into the estuaries.”
The samples were gathered over two days in September 2014 from Sinclair Inlet off Bremerton and near the mouth of Blair Waterway in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.
The chemicals turned up in both the water and the tissues of migratory juvenile chinook salmon and resident staghorn sculpin. If anything, the study probably underreports the amount of drugs in the water closer to outfall pipes, or in deeper water, researchers found.
Even fish tested in the intended control waters in the Nisqually estuary, which receives no direct municipal treatment-plant discharge, tested positive for an alphabet soup of chemicals in supposedly pristine waters.
“That was supposed to be our clean reference area,” Meador said. He also was surprised that levels in many cases were higher than in many of the 50 largest wastewater-treatment plants around the nation. Those plants were sampled in another study by the EPA.
The findings are of concern because most of the chemicals detected are not monitored or regulated in wastewater, and there is little or no established science on the environmental toxicity for the vast majority of the compounds detected.
Meador said he doubted there would be effects from the chemicals on human health, because people don’t eat sculpin or juvenile chinook, and levels are probably too low in the water to be active in humans. But one of the reasons the wastewater pollutants studied as a class are called “chemicals of emerging concern” is because so little is known about them.