A federal study released this week found more than 100 toxic substances from everyday life are making their way through wastewater treatment plants into the Columbia River.
"In the past people thought of pollution in the river in terms of smokestack industry on the river or dirty pipes," said Jennifer Morace, the U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who was lead investigator on the study.
"This links it back to what we do in our everyday lives, what goes down the drain and to the wastewater treatment plant, and the fact they were not designed to remove the new or emerging contaminants."
The study looked at water treatment plant discharges in nine cities, from Wenatchee, downstream to Longview. They included Richland, Umatilla, The Dalles, Hood River, Portland, Vancouver and St. Helens.
A total of 112 toxic materials were found, 53 percent of those that were tested for, including flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, personal care products, mercury and cleaning products.
All nine sites showed the compound diphenhydramine, a component of Benedryl and Tylenol PM that makes people drowsy, and carbamazepine, a compound found in mood stabilizers, Morace said.
"Science is having a hard time keeping up with all the new compounds being constantly introduced," she said.
While science and government have not yet developed toxicity standards for the materials, "It is not hard to imagine they may have some sort of impact on aquatic life as well as people," Morace said.
Mary Lou Soscia, Columbia River coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency was particularly concerned about the harm the toxins could cause tribal people who eat a lot of fish from the river. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson met last week with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
"These are things that are out there that we all use in our lives that are not really easy to regulate or control," she said.