Our role in finding chemicals in Puget Sound

New research out of UW Tacoma is helping us learn more about pharmaceuticals and pollution in the water.

Scientist standing at water edge taking a sample.

New partnership with UW Tacoma researchers sampled 18 regions around Puget Sound.

We often receive questions about the types of pollution going into Washington’s water and what potential environmental and health effects the different contaminants could have. While we don’t have all of the answers, we've been working on this complex problem since our start in 1970. We have made progress removing bacteria from waterbodies and reducing shellfish harvest closures, as well as regulating industries to prevent them from dumping pollution, and continuing to fund infrastructure repair and research projects.

We're contributing National Estuary Program (NEP) funding in a new partnership with University of Washington (UW) Tacoma researchers to learn more about some Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) in the Puget Sound. Contaminants of Emerging Concern are chemicals that may pose risk to human health or the environment. These chemicals generally occur at low levels in waterbodies, however they may be widespread and may build-up or bio-accumulate in fish or mammals. These chemicals can be of ‘emerging concern’ for a few reasons: we may have learned new information on their potential to harm the environment or humans, it is a new chemical, or there is a new technique to measure a suspected chemical that may have existed for awhile.

Many of these chemicals come from not only industry or technology sources, but also closer to home — from the pharmaceuticals and personal care products used every day that end up going down the drain when people shower, do laundry, or use the toilet.

As new chemicals and combinations of chemicals are created, it is tough for anyone to keep up with understanding the impacts both for people and the environment. For example, there are over 20,000 prescription drugs and personal care products approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and currently 83,000 chemicals in commerce. While many of these chemicals are helpful, some may be harmful and may also be making their way into Washington’s waters.

How does pollution get into the water?

Washington has one of the nation’s fastest growing populations with more people moving here every day. All of us produce a lot of waste, not only garbage but also waste in water from industry and every time people use a sink or go to the bathroom.

Wastewater (carrying human waste, personal care products, and industrial chemicals) goes to one of many hard-working wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater treatment plants are doing their jobs. However, these treatment plants were designed primarily to remove bacteria and viruses — obvious threats to human health. While some CECs are removed in regular wastewater treatment, the treatment is not effective at removing every chemical, it just depends on the individual chemical and its concentration.

Pipe in side of hill with water spilling out onto rocks.
Additionally, with all the rain that is typical of Western Washington there is a lot of stormwater runoff. Stormwater is rain and snowmelt that runs off rooftops and paved surfaces like highways and parking lots. As it runs off, it picks up many types of pollution like oil, fertilizers, chemicals, trash, and animal manure. While the state has made great strides in managing stormwater in urban areas, not all stormwater is treated (especially in areas built before modern stormwater permits and codes required treatment) and some of it flows downstream directly into streams, lakes, and Puget Sound.

UW Tacoma labs at Center for Urban Waters conducting study

scientist putting sample into machine

UW Tacoma has an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the Center for Urban Waters. They've collected a wide range of water and tissue samples from areas where CECs are likely to occur. The new “non-targeted” approach screened samples from 18 regions of Puget Sound to look for new chemicals in the water. The goal of this work is to identify and understand which of these chemicals has the highest potential to cause harm. Also, they will work to fully understand where the chemicals are coming from and what can be done to minimize risks. 

Researchers identified 64 chemicals never detected in the waterway. Eight chemicals were at potentially hazardous concentrations that researchers said will require further investigation. Those eight chemicals were localized to 'hot spots' and include vehicle-related contaminants found in tires, anti-depressants, herbicides, and chemicals found in plastics.

As researchers learn more about these chemicals and how they get into the Sound, we will continue our work to prioritize wastewater and stormwater treatment efforts and work together to continue to balance human needs and the environment.

person and toilet on puget sound (Text: When your home septic system fails, remember it doesn't just fail at home.)
What can you do?

Everyone can play a part in keeping Puget Sound clean. Here are a few things you can do to reduce pollution in stormwater and wastewater.


Funding projects from the Puget Sound  Action Agenda

The Puget Sound Action Agenda charts the course to recovery and helps coordinate actions by the many groups working to improve the health of the Sound. We work with our partners to choose priority local projects called Near Term Actions. We manage the projects and use U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Puget Sound Geographic Funds (commonly called NEP funds) to help ensure we work strategically to restore the Sound.

NEP funds are uniquely flexible, making them ideal for cross-cutting work that empowers groups throughout the region to invest in capacity-building activities like planning, education and outreach, pilot projects, and research and monitoring. These types of projects frequently do not receive funding through other more established and stringent sources of funding, given their exploratory nature. Yet, activities like research, planning, and outreach are critical to the success of our recovery efforts. NEP funds fill this niche in the Puget Sound funding landscape.