Water pollution doesn’t just come from industrial pipes. It can also come from your prescription drugs or antibacterial soap. As part of our series on the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Cassandra Profita reports on the everyday pollutants that are emerging in waterways across the Northwest.
Dave Sohm lives on a cul-du-sac in Oregon City.
His house is immaculate. Every tool in the garage has its own hook. The countertops in the kitchen are gleaming.
But in his house – as with most houses – toxic chemicals are hiding in plain sight. He wants to know where.
Sohm: “I’m curious about what things there are. I don’t know what impacts I may be having that I’m not even aware of.”
Jen Coleman is at Sohm’s house to help. She works on reducing toxics for the Oregon Environmental Council.
“I think the best place to start is probably the bathroom.”
Armed with a list of chemicals that have toxic effects on people and the environment, Coleman digs through cabinets, checks ingredient lists and compares them with contaminants that have been found in local waterways. First on her list is a chemical called triclosan. It’s found in antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and deodorant. And it can be toxic to fish.
Coleman: “What I’m looking for first is the ingedients you put on your skin or your hair and that you rinse off on the bathroom and then rinse off in the shower.”
The water that goes down the drains and toilets in Sohm’s house is funneled into a wastewater treatment plant. The plant removes pollutants and sends treated water into the Willamette River.
But scientists are increasingly finding evidence that everyday chemicals, pharmaceuticals and human hormones pass right through the treatment plants and into waterways across the country.
“What goes down your drain really does go somewhere.”
That’s Jennifer Morace. She’s a hydrologist with U.S. Geological Survey. She tested the water coming out of nine wastewater treatment plants in the Northwest and found traces of dozens of chemicals from household products.
One Portland treatment plant was sending the equivalent of 400 Benadryl pills into the Columbia River every day.
“A lot of people may think oh, it goes to a treatment plant so it’s taken care of, but there’s only so much we can take care of.”
Treatment plants don’t remove these chemicals partly because it would be really expensive. But also because they don’t have to.
These new pollutants aren’t regulated under the Clean Water Act, though some of them have toxic properties that threaten both human health and fish and wildlife. And no one knows what happens when they’re all mixed together.
As for what is regulated, there are 126 toxic chemicals on the Clean Water Act priority pollutant list. But not a single pollutant has been added to that list since 1977.
So there are no legal limits for most of the household chemicals that are showing up in the water today. Most of them haven’t been studied enough to know how much is too much to put in a waterway.
In her walkthrough of Sohm’s house, Coleman didn’t find any triclosan, but she did find lots of shampoos and soaps with fragrances in them. The fragrances likely contain phthalates that interfere with hor mones in the body.
Coleman: “So then, maybe into the kitchen”
In Sohm’s kitchen, Coleman found a likely source of perfluorinated compounds that are toxic to wildlife. They’re also known as teflons, and they can be found in non-stick cookware.
Sohm: “So then my pan that I always cook breakfast in–
Coleman: “So the pan that you always cook breakfast in again does have that nonstick coating.”
Household chemicals that aren’t removed at the wastewater treatment plant can actually show up in drinking water downstream. A study of 48 drinking water sources in Oregon found a long list of contaminants including bug spray, cholesterol, hormones and herbicides – again at very low levels.
And when they say they’re finding these contaminants at very low levels, they mean VERY low levels. Most are being detected in parts per trillion. That’s the equivalent of one drop in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools.
At that level, experts say it’s really hard to determine the toxic threats to humans or the environment. And it may be easier to eliminate the source of the pollution than to develop a regulation to deal with it under the Clean Water Act.
“The original act, there were rivers on fire and it was focused on cleaning up rivers,”
That’s Mary Lou Soscia, the Columbia River Coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency. She says it would take an act of Congress to add these new pollutants to the list of what’s regulated under the Clean Water Act.
Instead, her agency is working with industry and consumers to reduce and replace toxic chemicals in everyday products.
“We’ve evolved to the point where we recognize the most important thing is cleaning up pollution at its source.”
Robert Adler is an environmental law professor at the University of Utah. He says the EPA is actually required to regulate all pollutants under the Clean Water Act – even the ones that aren’t on the priority pollutant list. But the agency has been slow to act on that part of the law.
“The statute was very ambitious, very aspirational and sought to completely eliminate pollutant discharges, which has proven to be very difficult. We got a lot of the nastiest pollutants out of the nastiest dischargers, and it’s just a lot harder to make progress after you’ve eaten that low lying fruit as it were.”
Adler agrees that keeping toxics out of products in the first place is a viable solution too.
Back Oregon City, Sohm asks about the cleaner he uses.
“We have a moss issue on the roof. And I don’t know what’s the right way to deal with that because there are a lot of things like this recommended. Let’s spray bleach on it, and then it goes through the storm sewer through the gutter.”
The home tour revealed the hiding places for flame retardants in electronics and furniture, and pesticides in the wasp and hornet killer in his garden shed.
And in the end Sohm agreed to try brushing the moss off his roof with a broom instead of spraying a chemical to remove it.
I’m Cassandra Profita reporting.