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Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.

Toxic substances of everyday life reach Columbia River, study finds

By Jeff Barnard
The Associated Press

A federal study has 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, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who was lead investigator. "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, released last week, looked at discharges from water-treatment plants in nine cities, from Wenatchee downstream to Longview. They included Richland and Vancouver in Washington and Umatilla, The Dalles, Hood River, Portland and St. Helens in Oregon.

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 Benadryl 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 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 this month 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.

While flame retardants that mimic hormones in animals have been banned by Washington and Oregon, they still make their way into the river. So do pharmaceuticals, despite a nationwide drive for people to turn unused medicines in at collection centers rather than dump them down the drain.

The study was prompted by concerns raised by tribal and conservation groups, Morace said.

"Now that we understand how toxics have made their way into our river system, we must take immediate action to address the sources of contamination and begin cleanup," Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in a statement.

"We're not talking about a theoretical problem," Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said in a statement. "The departments of health in Oregon and Washington have fish advisories all over the Columbia River and other rivers that tell people to limit how much fish they eat because of toxic pollution."

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