Salmon on Prozac? A new study will look at what King County's wastewater chemicals do to fish and orcas

The King County Council committed nearly $400,000 to better understand how discharges from its three largest plants affect juvenile salmon and the southern resident orcas that feed on them.

by Hannah Weinberger / November 7, 2019 / Updated at 2:07p.m. on Nov. 7, 2019



King County's West Point treatment plant in Seattle’s Discovery Park, Nov. 4, 2019. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In 2016, the international media erupted with reports of “salmon on Prozac” found near two wastewater treatment plants in Bremerton and Tacoma. A research team led by Dr. Jim Meador, a research fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, discovered concentrations of common medications, chemicals such as fungicides and even cocaine in wastewater effluent, local estuaries and the tissue of nearby juvenile salmon. Even fish in the Nisqually estuary — more than 20 miles from the nearest test treatment plants — showed signs of contamination. 

The study estimated that, each year, all 106 Puget Sound treatment plants could be collectively discharging 97,000 pounds of chemicals into the Sound. Over the past few decades, there has been considerable growth in not only the number of possible contaminants in our waters, but also the human population responsible for pollution. Public concern has risen to match.

Now, a new study funded by King County and spearheaded by Meador aims to go beyond the sensational “salmon on cocaine” headlines to get us closer to understanding what this means for the life cycles of salmon and orcas that eat them. It has become a frequent topic of discussion within state government — especially after the Governor’s Orca Task Force made reducing exposure to pollution a top priority.

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Biosolids: mix human waste with toxic chemicals, then spread on crops

Dairy cows rest outside at Stoneridge Farm in Arundel, Maine, in August 2019. The farm was forced to shut down after sludge spread on the land was linked to high levels of PFAS in the milk. Photograph: Robert F Bukaty/AP


Residual sludge from treating waste water has been turned into a money-spinner but what are the costs to health of ‘the most pollutant-rich manmade substance on Earth’?


By some estimates, Americans send about 300m pounds of feces daily from the nation’s toilets to wastewater treatment plants.


While the water is cleaned and discharged, the remaining toxic sewage sludge stays at the treatment plant, and it’s what Sierra Club environmentalist Nancy Raine calls “the most pollutant-rich manmade substance on Earth”.


This “biosolid” sludge is expensive to dispose of because it must be landfilled, but the waste management industry is increasingly using a money-making alternative – repackaging the sludge as fertilizer and injecting it into the nation’s food chain.


Now the practice is behind a growing number of public health problems. Spreading pollutant-filled biosolids on farmland is making people sick, contaminating drinking water and filling crops, livestock and humans with everything from pharmaceuticals to PFAS.


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Impacts of MicroPlastics in Agrosystems and Stream Environments


The main objective of the IMPASSE (Impacts of MicroPlastics in Agrosystems and Stream Environments) project is to assess the risk of environmental contamination with MPs in agroecosystems and nearby aquatic ecosystems, and to provide solutions capable of promoting agricultural sustainability and economic development, protecting the environment and human health.

The IMPASSE project is formed by a consortium coordinated by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) in collaboration with the Swedish University of Agriculture, the Vrije University of Amsterdam, the University of Trent (Canada), and IMDEA Water. It is funded by the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness (refence PCIN-2017-016/AEI) and framed within the Joint Programming Initiatives of the European Research Area JPI – Water.

From the project description:

"Microplastics (MPs) are generally defined as plastic particles which are less than 5 mm in size. The problem of MPs pollution in the oceans is widely known, but the problem is not limited to the marine environment, it also affects other ecosystems. There is evidence showing that each year, in North America, farmed soils are exposed to up to 300,000 tonnes of MPs. [...] This is especially alarming given that plastic polymers can contain toxic compounds and endocrine disrupting substances. Effectively, sewage sludge application may be causing persistent, pernicious and almost totally ignored contamination of agricultural land. [...]The situation is expected to be similar all over the world, at least in developed countries. A primary source of MPs to agrosystems is thought to be biosolids, grey waters and sludge, which are used as fertilizers. Plastic polymers can attach toxic compounds and endocrine-disrupting substances, so it is important to know the persistence and environmental fate of these MPs, as well as their impact on neighbouring terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and on human health."

For further information visit the IMPASSE Project Interactive Website.

Industry Cites 3M Research on Cancer Patients Exposed to PFOA to Claim the Chemical Isn’t So Bad

by Sharon Lerner
August 12 2019, 9:45 a.m.


In partnership with

Defenders of the chemicals known as PFAS have seized upon an industry-funded study of cancer patients as evidence that PFOA, the compound used to make Teflon, firefighting foam, and many other products, isn’t as dangerous as it seems.

The study, which was funded by the Minnesota-based global conglomerate 3M and published in February 2018 in the journal Toxicological Sciences, was based on a clinical trial conducted by the company CXR Biosciences, in which 49 terminal cancer patients were exposed to high doses of PFOA. Now recognized as a widespread water contaminant, PFOA was originally developed by 3M.

The authors of the study, who include a 3M staff scientist and two University of Minnesota faculty members who received research grants from the company, as well as two of the authors of a 2010 abstract summarizing the original clinical trial, initially describe its purpose as assessing the chemotherapeutic potential of PFOA. Yet the paper contains little mention of how the chemical affected patients’ cancers and instead focuses on their cholesterol levels, which appeared to decrease slightly over a six-week trial period. (Since the study’s publication, one of its authors, Matteo Convertino, left the institution.)

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TOXIC PFAS CHEMICALS FOUND IN MAINE FARMS FERTILIZED WITH SEWAGE SLUDGE

by Sharon Lerner
June 7 2019, 5:57 a.m.

ALL SEWAGE SLUDGE recently tested by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection was contaminated with PFAS chemicals, according to documents obtained by The Intercept. The state tested the sludge, solid waste that remains after the treatment of domestic and industrial water, for the presence of three “forever chemicals”: PFOA, PFOS, and PFBS. Of 44 samples taken from Maine farms and other facilities that distribute compost made from the sludge, all contained at least one of the PFAS chemicals. In all but two of the samples, the chemicals exceeded safety thresholds for sludge that Maine set early last year.

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Scientists say microplastics are all over farmlands, but we're ignoring the problem


Focus on the impacts of microplastics has almost entirely been on the world's oceans, but researchers say an even bigger problem could be hiding under our feet.

Key points:

  • Between 107,000-730,000 tonnes of microplastic are added to European and North American farmlands each year
  • In 2017, Australia produced 327,000 tonnes of dry biosolids containing microplastics and 75 per cent of it was used in agriculture
  • Researchers say there is a lack of public awareness and scientific understanding of the issue

Microplastics are particles smaller than five millimetres. About 800,000 to 2.5 million tonnes of these tiny pieces of plastic are estimated to end up in oceans each year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

However, not much is known about the damage these particles cause to landscapes as they make their way to the sea. Agricultural lands are likely to be the most plastic-contaminated places outside of landfill and urban spaces, according to research published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. The plastics find their way into agricultural soils through recycled wastewater and rubbish. Between 107,000-730,000 tonnes of microplastic are added to European and North American farmlands each year, according to researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Water Research.

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Wisconsin case shows how sewage plants spread unregulated toxins across landscape

STEVEN VERBURG sverburg@madison.com Jan 27, 2019

As Wisconsin discovers more PFAS contamination it will decide whether to follow the lead of Michigan and investigate the role of wastewater treatment plants in spreading the indestructible, toxic compounds across the landscape. Above, equipment used to test for PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water is seen at Trident Laboratories in Holland, Mich.

CORY MORSE, THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS

Detection of a toxic chemical in a northeastern Wisconsin wastewater treatment plant’s sludge has prompted a halt to application of the material on nearby farms and raised broader concerns about how public sewer systems across the state may be spreading the chemical across the landscape.

The contaminated sludge in Marinette also highlights unease and confusion in local communities over the absence of enforceable federal or Wisconsin environmental standards for the chemicals — often referred to by the acronym PFAS — despite at least two decades of research linking them to serious health problems.

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Long-term exposure to chemicals in sewage sludge fertilizer alters liver lipid content in females and cancer marker expression in males

Highlights

• Chronic exposure to environmental chemicals affects liver physiology.
• Proteomic measurements showed widespread dysregulation in the exposed livers.
• Exposure dysregulated important plasma proteins such as albumin and transferrin
• Reduction in total lipids in the exposed female livers
• Increase in cancer markers in the exposed male livers

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Report: EPA Unable to Assess the Impact of Hundreds of Unregulated Pollutants in Land-Applied Biosolids on Human Health and the Environment

The EPA identified 352 pollutants in biosolids but cannot yet consider these pollutants for further regulation due to either a lack of data or risk assessment tools. Pollutants found in biosolids can include pharmaceuticals, steroids and flame retardants.

See full report at the EPA

Microplastics found in fertilisers being applied to gardens and farmland


Microplastics are making their way into organics fertilisers that are used in both domestic and agricultural settings ( Getty )

Many organic fertilisers being applied to gardens and farms contain tiny fragments of plastic, according to a new study.

Widely considered a problem affecting the oceans, this work suggests microplastics may actually be far more pervasive.

Having entered the soil, the scientists behind the study have warned these tiny fragments could end up in the food we eat.

The production of organic fertilisers is generally considered environmentally friendly as it involves recycling food waste from households and other sources to make useful products that can be used to grow more food.

However, contamination of the waste used to produce these fertilisers – which are used by gardeners and farmers alike – means tiny microplastics are making their way into the soil.

“One example is people use plastic bags and then put everything together in the bin, and then this is entering the waste treatment plant and ending up in the fertilisers,” Professor Ruth Freitag, one of the study’s authors, told The Independent.

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The Secret Life of Landfill: A Rubbish History Aug 25, 2018

Landfill leachate that is transported to the waste water treatment plant then ends up in sewage sludge. Learn more by viewing this film. The part about the leachate begins at fifty-two minutes and twenty-seven seconds.

‘Consumer Reports’ Finds Heavy Metals in Baby Foods


By Kathleen Doheny

Aug. 16, 2018 -- Heavy metals at levels called ''troublesome'' are lurking in foods commonly eaten by babies and toddlers, according to a new Consumer Reports investigation.

Scientists there studied 50 packaged foods made for children, from cereals to snacks, testing three samples of each. They estimated how much of each food a child typically eats, then looked at medical research on what levels of the heavy metals could cause health issues.

"We found troublesome levels of heavy metals, in particular inorganic arsenic, cadmium, or lead, in every single sample," says James Dickerson, PhD, Consumer Reports' chief scientific officer. "These heavy metals shouldn’t be in food, period.'' They can damage the nervous system, cause cancer, and harm children's development, he says.

Yet, "it's not that surprising'' the heavy metals were there, he says. They are found in nature. Most heavy metals in food come from water or soil contaminated through farming or manufacturing processes, from the use of pesticides, or pollution from leaded gasoline, the report explains.

What was especially concerning, Dickerson says, is that about two-thirds, or 68%, of the tested foods had very high levels of the heavy metals. "What we are concerned about is if you feed your child this [food with high levels of heavy metals], over the lifetime of their development, particularly during birth to 4, then you will have an increased risk of having cancer, for example."

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Is Your Food Grown In Sewage Sludge? Here’s How To Avoid It

“Mmm, I want a bit of sewage sludge to start my day,” said no one, ever. In today’s modern society, we are so far removed from where our food comes from. However, if most people knew what was going on behind the scenes, they would definitely consider becoming vegetarian before learning to grow all (or at least some) of their own food.

Growing up, I lived across from a farm and it wasn’t uncommon for my dad to use manure in the garden. This is a natural process and when used as a soil conditioner, it can provide plenty of N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). What’s not natural is the use of sewage, including toxic chemicals and human waste.

Yes, you read that right. “Treated” sewage sludge is being used to grow the foods we eat.

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What Lies Upstream

In the unsettling exposé What Lies Upstream, investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback travels to West Virginia to study the unprecedented loss of clean water for over 300,000 Americans in the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. He uncovers a shocking failure of regulation from both state and federal agencies and a damaged political system where chemical companies often write the laws that govern them.

View full length film until May 1st at http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/videos/what-lies-upstream/

Sewage sludge train cars in Birmingham to be moved after 'death smell' complaints

By Dennis Pillion

Several dozen train cars loaded with what appears to be sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants in New York and New Jersey will be pulled back into a rail yard and off the tracks in north Birmingham, according to a statement from Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin's office.

According to photos and video posted to social media (featuring strong language), at least 80 train cars were parked on tracks Tuesday, near Finley Boulevard, between 27th Avenue North and 29th Avenue North.

The posting described a "death smell," emanating from the train cars, and said a local business had been getting calls about a possible dead body in the area due to the odor.

The train cars appear identical to shipments that have caused controversy and court battles in Jefferson and Walker Counties, as containers of sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants in New York and New Jersey are carried by train to the greater Birmingham area for disposal at the Big Sky Environmental landfill in Adamsville.

Personnel at the landfill were not immediately available for comment as to whether the containers sitting on the train in Birmingham were in fact headed for the landfill.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of train cars full of the sewage sludge have been rolling into the landfill since early 2017, generating citizen complaints about odors and legal action from municipalities at every stop.

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