Cocaine, Spices, Hormones Found in Drinking Water

Some unusual ingredients, from heroin and cinnamon to rocket fuel and birth control drugs, are lurking in the world's freshwater supplies, scientists report.

How's this for a sweet surprise? A team of researchers in Washington State has found traces of cooking spices and flavorings in the waters of Puget Sound.

University of Washington associate professor Richard Keil heads the Sound Citizen program, which investigates how what we do on land affects our waters.

Keil and his team have tracked "pulses" of food ingredients that enter the sound during certain holidays.

For instance, thyme and sage spike during Thanksgiving, cinnamon surges all winter, chocolate and vanilla show up during weekends (presumably from party-related goodies), and waffle-cone and caramel-corn remnants skyrocket around the Fourth of July.

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The Puget Sound study is one of several ongoing efforts to investigate the unexpected ingredients that find their way into the global water supply.

Around the world, scientists are finding trace amounts of substances—from sugar and spice to heroin, rocket fuel, and birth control—that might be having unintended consequences for humans and wildlife alike.

Vanilla Seas?

When spices and flavorings are flushed out of a U.S. home, they travel to a sewage-treatment facility, where most of them are removed.

In the area around Puget Sound, the University of Washington team found, the spicy residues that remain in wastewater end up flowing into the sound's inland waterways.

Of all the flavors trickling downstream, artificial vanilla dominates the sound, Keil said. For instance, the team found an average of about six milligrams of artificial vanilla per liter of water sampled.

The region's sewage runoff contains more than 14 milligrams of vanilla per liter. This would be like spiking an Olympic-size swimming pool with approximately ten 4-ounce (113.4-gram) bottles of artificial vanilla.

For now, there's no evidence that a sweeter and spicier sound is a bad thing—salmon, which can smell such flavors, could be enjoying their vanilla-enhanced habitat, Keil said.

In an attempt to understand some of the consequences of spice in the water, Keil and colleagues plan to study whether cooking ingredients harm the reproduction of octopuses in Puget Sound.

Overall, he added, the spice project has become a successful recipe for educating people, especially schoolkids, "that everything you do is connected to the watershed."

Illegal Drugs

The link from kitchen or bathroom to coast can also grease the path for some rather unsavory substances, such as illegal drugs, experts have discovered.

After a person has taken drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and ecstasy, active byproducts of these substances are released into the sewage stream through that person's urine and feces.

These byproducts, or metabolites, are often not completely removed during the sewage-treatment process, at least in Europe, said Sara Castiglioni of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, Italy.

That means the drug-tainted wastewater can enter groundwater and surface water, which are collectively the major sources of drinking water for most people.

In a new review study, Castiglioni and colleague Ettore Zuccato found that illegal drugs have become "widespread" in surface water in some of Europe's populated areas.

For instance, in a 2008 study scientists discovered a byproduct of cocaine in 22 of 24 samples of drinking water at a Spanish water-treatment plant—despite a rigorous filtering and treatment process.

Likewise, in 2005, Zuccato found that a daily influx of cocaine travels down the Po River, Italy's longest river.

Though these drug traces are still tiny, it's possible that the potent residues could be toxic to freshwater animals, according to the study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.

For this reason, the "risks for human health and the environment cannot be excluded," the study warns.


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