EVERETT — Ocean water in Snohomish County is less polluted than other urban sites in Puget Sound, despite over 60 new chemicals scientists tracked in and around Possession Sound — including trace amounts of methamphetamine.
Many of the products humans use end up washing into Puget Sound through runoff and in wastewater. There, they impact ocean critters like mussels, salmon and killer whales.
One way that’s manifesting is through feminization — when male fish start having high levels of a protein that’s typically only seen in female fish and used to produce eggs.
It’s a sign the fish are being exposed to a chemical they shouldn’t be, water quality researcher Andrew James said. It happens mostly in highly industrial areas like in Elliot Bay in Seattle.
Feminization, along with a host of other worrisome impacts on marine life, drove James and fellow scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle and Tacoma to test water samples from Port Townsend to Olympia. They wanted to determine which chemicals are washing into Puget Sound, where they’re concentrated and if they’re actively harming marine animals.
“Fish and wildlife are suffering because of urban pollution,” James said.
A new method
Historically, there’s been a gap between knowing a chemical is used near the Sound and actually finding it in the water, James said.
Take antidepressants, for example.
Researchers guessed they were probably washing into the Sound, but the drugs had never been detected in the water.
That’s because scientists could only track specific, targeted chemicals in samples of marine water.
“You assume what you’re going to find and you just go for those things,” water quality researcher Zhenyu Tian said.
But just over two years ago, a new lab in Tacoma allowed them to take a non-targeted approach.
“The special thing about our work is we don’t pre-define what we’re going to find,” Tian said.
The idea is simple, but it’s made possible by new technology.
In the study released in December, researchers for the first time cast a wide net to identify all elements potentially harmful to sea creatures.
They collected samples at 18 different sites, including two in Snohomish County — one at the Edmonds Ferry terminal and the other at the Everett Boat Launch.
The sites are all near to shorelines of varying land uses, from parks to cruise ship terminals.
They identified 64 chemicals never before detected in Puget Sound. Those included pesticides, herbicides, food additives and pharmaceuticals like antidepressants and blood pressure medications.
Eight of the newly identified chemicals are at levels that could be hazardous to marine life. They included:
• Two vehicle-related contaminants that are found in tires and other sources.
• The antidepressant drug Venlafaxine.
• Two herbicides, including an aquatic one used for controlling weeds and algae.
• Two chemicals found in plastics.
• A persistent, well-studied chemical called PFOS, which is known to be harmful to humans and animals.
These chemicals were concentrated in specific “hot spots” around Puget Sound. The samples were volatile — not all the chemicals showed up in every batch.
Some less concerning materials, such as Splenda and a drug used to treat seizures and bipolar disorder, showed up more reliably.
The hot spots were concentrated around the Seattle area, Tian said. The first was Smith Cove Cruise Terminal at Pier 91, the home-port for Carnival Cruise Line. It showed pesticides and PFOS.
Another was Commodore Park at the Ballard Locks.
The Thea Foss Waterway in Tacoma and Budd Inlet in Olympia were also considered hot spots.
About 40% of the sites also showed trace amounts of methamphetamine, which enters the sound through wastewater. James stressed it’s not enough for humans to be impacted, even if they spent extensive time in Puget Sound.
Snohomish County report card
Snohomish County came out of the study looking “generally OK,” Tian said.
The sites didn’t show any compounds with high ecological risk during the May, August and October sampling dates.
In June, they did find some chemicals related to wastewater, including caffeine and Venlafaxine (the antidepressant drug).
Methamphetamine was occasionally detected in those two sites, but the concentration was very low.
Now, the scientists are hoping to find a link between contamination in the Sound and land use, James said.
Some links are obvious — like finding herbicides in the water next to a park. Others are murkier.
“What we’re really trying to do is figure out which of these chemicals we’re seeing all over the place matter the most,” James said.
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.