Puget Sound on Prozac

Pretty as it is, our signature waterway is a chemical dump for everything from oil to sewage — and even anti-depressants. You may be surprised (and disgusted) by what turns up there.
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Pretty as it is, our signature waterway is a chemical dump for everything from oil to sewage — and even anti-depressants. You may be surprised (and disgusted) by what turns up there.

We're on the brink of summer, Seattle's biggest outdoor season. More likely than not, one day in the next few months you'll find yourself gazing out at Puget Sound. The waters will be sparkling, the rugged Olympics or Cascades will make a spectacular backdrop and overhead — for a couple of days in August — might be, as Perry Como sang, "the bluest skies you've ever seen...."

If you're lucky, you'll be out there on a boat, perhaps on one of the innumerable pleasure craft or on a ferry crossing Elliott Bay. You'll point out the visible wonders to your fellow shipmates, and your out-of-town guests will be in awe. But the reality is, you might as well be the little yachtsman in the old bathroom cleanser commercials: The Man from Ty-D-Bol. Indeed, he probably sailed on cleaner waters in a freshly scrubbed toilet.

The fact is, Puget Sound is a toxic dump and a sewer.

Sure, we've heard that Puget Sound needs to be cleaned up. But even knowing the Sound's long history of industry around its edges — and that sometimes septic tanks leak into its waters — it looks so damn good. How can anything be wrong? Puget Sound's pollution isn't the kind that sets waters on fire, as happened to the old Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, once upon a time. It's a quiet, almost invisible disaster.

The Sound is an arm of the sea, and it's deep. That's what attracted so many settlers, adventurers and city builders: good ports and protected waters. In the last 150 years, humans have swarmed into the Puget Sound Basin, some 4 million of us. The Sound is now suffering, but its pain is masked by its pristine surface. The deep waters hide much of the problem: In sediments and throughout the food chain, our presence is being felt.

Take this shocking figure, reported in The Olympian earlier this year. The number-one source of pollution in the Sound isn't industry, it's us. Runoff from our roads, sidewalks, driveways, etc. is the biggest single source of pollutants, according to the state Department of Ecology. Every year, 22,580 metric tons of oil and petroleum flow in just from this source. To put that in perspective, that's roughly the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-size oil spill every other year. This in a body of water from which oil tankers are banned. Can you imagine the outrage if we'd had 10 Exxon Valdez spills in the last 20 years?

Much of the pollution flowing into the sea is more personal. The Sound's Chinook salmon have high levels of flame retardants, the kind of chemicals used to make your upholstery and pajamas fire resistant. Every drug we put into our bodies finds its way into the water, mostly through the sewer system (what goes in, comes out, eventually, and not everything is "treated" at your local sewage treatment plant). What finds its way into the water eventually gets into the creatures that live there. On the East Coast, a study showed that chemicals from the anti-depressant Prozac were altering the reproductive cycles of mussels.

And our lifestyle is a factor, too. In California, some sea otters have been infected with parasites that can only have come from pet cats, presumably when their poop is flushed down the toilet or washed away by rain. Last year, researchers detected elevated levels of vanilla extract and cinnamon in Puget Sound right around Thanksgiving, evidence that traces of our seasonal diet, cookies and all, are reflected in our waste and, therefore, in our waters. The onslaught of Christmas fruitcake could have consequences!

Our impact on the environment is so extensive that we really have to begin rethinking the whole concept of "wilderness." All that beauty we look at from our decks or high-rise offices is not what it appears to be. A six-year study by the Environmental Protection Agency's National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory found that even the most remote parts of our national parks are polluted. It found high levels of mercury in fish in lakes of the Olympics and Mount Rainier.

Citizens have been trying to mobilize to "save" Puget Sound for decades. The government is working on the problem with task forces and studies. But a sense of urgency is still lacking. One recent poll asked central Puget Sound-area residents what the top priority for state government was. Only 2 percent named cleaning up Puget Sound.

It's hard to take a crisis seriously when it looks so pretty.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.