6-Year Study Reveals Toxins Contaminating Columbia River, Wildlife

water contaminants
Environmental Pollution

water contaminantsIn the first such study of toxic contaminants within the Columbia River, researchers have found troubling results. Not only is the water polluted, but so is the wildlife—the fish which both birds and people are eating. The contaminants being blamed? Those that go down the drains in homes all across the country.

As OPB reports, the study was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey. It lasted six years and was the first time household toxins were effectively tested for in the Columbia river.

“In a lot of cases, there’s not even thresholds set for safe and unsafe because we’ve never looked for them before,” said USGS hydrologist Steven Sobieszczyk. 

The toxins were found in the water, fish, and osprey eggs. The fish species they looked at, the largescale sucker, had sperm abnormalities which make it more difficult for them to reproduce. These fish are caught for consumption, which means the toxins they are absorbing are coming back to the people who are likely to blame for polluting the water in the first place.

“A lot of these things come through the pathways of the wastewater treatment plant into the river,” says Elena Nielsen, a research chemist with the USGS in Portland. “But the ultimate source was usually us,” she admits.

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Their findings—which resulted from analysis of river sediments, insects in the water, the largescale sucker, and osprey eggs—show bioaccumulation. This means there are higher levels of toxins the higher you go up the food chain. Further, contamination levels were also higher as you move downstream, as toxic impact accumulated.

“Water quality often goes overlooked and ignored because it’s not tangible. You can’t see it,” said Sara Thompson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “We can see fish populations decrease in the Columbia River system and the Willamette System but we can’t see these toxics. We have to make water quality standards a priority in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.”

While local tribes depend more on salmon and steelhead, the study on suckers indicates a larger water-quality issue, one that no doubt affects all fish varieties.

The household toxins we’re talking about here are those many of us use on a daily basis and don’t think twice to pour down the drain or spray on the lawn. But despite them disappearing from our view, these pollutants continue to have effects on the world around us.