I have a fairly standard morning routine: I shower, wash my hair and apply moisturizer, then have breakfast. It’s an average morning that I am sure is similar to many people’s – but I’m guessing that few of us consider our morning routines to have a direct impact on local water quality. When I leave the house to catch BART, I leave behind traces of my routine. My body did not absorb all of the caffeine that was in my coffee, and the shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer I used washed down the drain, where it will eventually reach the Bay. All of our everyday activities – from washing our hands to taking life-saving medications – are leaving a toxic footprint on our waterways.
And unfortunately, most wastewater treatment plants in the Bay Area are not capable of removing many of these chemicals from the waste stream. Our wastewater systems were designed to capture and treat the nutrients and pathogens in human waste – not the byproducts of the chemicals we use. That means our chemical leftovers can end up in our local streams, reservoirs and in the Bay. Collectively, this class of emerging water contaminants is referred to as Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs).
Today, over 80% of the waterways tested in the U.S. show trace amounts of chemicals like acetaminophen, hormones, blood pressure medicine, codeine and antibiotics. Synthetic musks, sun-screen ingredients and even cocaine are commonly found in our waterways. These substances lurk in our waters at extremely tiny concentrations – so small that they are often referred to as micropollutants. These low concentrations are precisely why PPCPs went unnoticed for so long. It was only in the 1990s that scientists began to develop methods that could detect and identify these trace substances.
Just because these chemicals are in our water bodies in trace amounts, however, does not mean they are not impacting our ecosystem. Many of these PPCPs stick around and build up in the environment. For example, in recent years there have been increasing reports of researchers finding ‘feminized’ male fish downstream of wastewater treatment plants around the world. These feminized fish tend to have low sperm counts and lower fertility than normal males. Researchers have pointed the finger at natural and synthetic estrogens and at chemicals from detergents and plastics. Another such product that has been raising alarms for researchers and regulators is triclosan, which is found in a wide variety of antibacterial household products such as hand soap, detergents, plastics, toothpaste and deodorant, to list just a few. Triclosan residues have been detected in many parts of our ecosystem, including surface waters, soil, fish tissue and human breast milk. In fact, the San Francisco Estuary Institute has documented triclosan in the waters of San Francisco Bay.
The relationship between human health and PPCPs is unclear. We know that some of these substances, like triclosan, are increasingly detected in humans. But linking unknown exposure to these chemicals to direct human health effects is difficult, and it may be many years before we understand the full impact of PPCPs on our health and our environment. While widespread regulation of these pollutants may take time, there are some commonsense ways to reduce the toll on local waterways caused by our everyday activities:
- Do not flush unused or leftover medications down the toilet or sink drain. Take them to a proper disposal facility like your local pharmacy, or contact your city’s wastewater treatment facility for specific disposal information.
- Reduce your use of products containing triclosan, such as anti-bacterial soaps and cleansers.
- Encourage your local government to invest in better wastewater treatment technology. While there is no single technology that can remove 100% of PCPPs, there are tools and regulations that can reduce the flow of harmful chemicals into the Bay.
- Advocate for regulations that require ‘eco-labeling’ of our products. In the same way that we require food manufacturers to label products that contain ingredients that might compromise health, we can require PCPPs manufacturers to label products that contain ingredients known to persist in the environment.
- Most importantly, educate your friends and neighbors about limiting the impacts of their daily routines. To learn more about pollutants that impact the Bay and what you can do to help, visit San Francisco Baykeeper at www.baykeeper.org.