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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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