With the marked successes of the Clean Water Act, and the resulting clean up of our sewage and industrial discharges, water quality watchdogs have been keeping their eye on the far horizon. “Rather than waiting for some new chemical to have an adverse effect, we need to be proactive about identifying the bad actors before they enter the Bay,” said the opening speaker Tom Mumley of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. But regulating contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) is a challenge: more than 1,000 new chemicals and products debut in the USA every year, and few carry any warning tags of risks to the environment (see also Tracking Next Generation Pollutants). “Once they get into the system, it’s difficult to link a chemical’s occurrence to an effect, or trace an effect back to a chemical,” said Mumley.
Luckily, California and the Bay Area have always had a penchant for taking the bull by the horns when it comes to environmental challenges. So it’s no wonder the Bay Area’s Regional Monitoring Program began tracking CECs, and trying to figure out how to tackle them, well before the rest of the country. According to Mumley, the program has helped the region’s regulatory, scientific, and stakeholder community put together a framework to guide management and monitoring of CECs. This framework provides risk-based screening of CECs, and then applies an appropriate management response (see Powerpoints). Mumley gave an overview of major CECs that have risen to attention as a result of the screening–including chemicals found in ant sprays, flea powders and antimicrobial soaps, among others.
One group of chemicals that appeared suddenly in RMP monitoring a decade ago, and helped jumpstart the new program of CEC scrutiny, was flame retardants. Speaking in place of Rebecca Sutton, Donald Yee from the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) noted that the region’s response to the high levels of flame retardants that suddenly appeared in Bay Area seals and women offers lessons about how to be proactive in the future.
Yee started with some background about how California’s very severe flammability standards led to the widespread addition of Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) to plastics, foam, and textiles to keep them from catching fire. “Most of us don’t cut our furniture into pieces and then light a flame under it,” she said, describing the basic test manufacturers had to apply to meet state requirements.
The adverse effects of this anti-flammability push began to emerge a decade ago. Cal/EPA studies revealed extremely high levels of PBDEs in people and wildlife in the San Francisco Bay Area, “among the highest in the world,” said Yee. Concerned about effects on both humans and wildlife, federal and state environmental agencies pressured the major manufacturer of two of three commercial PBDE mixtures to stop production in the mid-2000s. California banned their use in 2006, and the US EPA ruled that any proposed uses of these chemicals be reviewed for safety. Production of the last commercial PBDE mixture was phased out at the end of 2013.
Yee described the RMP’s work monitoring PBDEs in the Bay over the last ten years. Researchers detected these chemicals in Bay water and sediment, as well as in Bay bivalves, fish, bird eggs, and seals. “As we discovered many times before, our chemical, technological solutions come at a price,” she said. “The good news is that we’re now seeing declining PBDE contamination in sediment and organisms, probably as a result of the state ban and federal phase-outs. The bad news is that we haven’t learned our lessons, so the main response to the phase out has been to replace PBDEs with other chemicals. It isn’t completely clear yet what these are, but the game of playing catch up feels familiar.”
Indeed, the RMP has already detected some of the alternative flame retardants replacing PBDEs in the local aquatic ecosystem. “The only way out of this loop is to really think about whether we need these chemicals in the first place, through careful consideration of how we write the standards that virtually demand their use. Fortunately, the proposed new standards are backing off the open flame test,” noted Yee.
While repelling flames could be said to benefit human safety, repelling stains has always been more of an aesthetic priority. Stain repellents added to carpets, furniture, jackets, and even popcorn bags only began to concern water quality watchdogs as a CEC in the 2000s. But they’ve been around a lot longer, explained third speaker Meg Sedlak, also from SFEI.
Manufacturers have been adding perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) to soft furnishings, fire-fighting foams, metal finishing processes, and insecticides since the 1940s. “They’re great stain repellents, excellent surfactants, and good wetting agents because they repel both oil and water,” said Sedlak. They’re also highly stable. “They’re so persistent, and so widely used for some many different applications, they’ve even been turning up in relatively pristine locations like the Arctic,” she said.
In the Bay region, Sedlak was interested to find PFOS in apex predators such as seals and bird eggs as part of the RMP monitoring. “It remains elusive as to why concentrations in the South Bay are higher than the north,” she said. Sedlak showed slides of their monitoring results: eggs collected in the South Bay in 2006 and 2009 contained levels of PFOS above a threshold for impacts on offspring survival in birds (greater than 1,000 ppb). But more recent PFOS egg results in the South Bay (2012) held a surprise. “They were 70 percent lower than prior levels, and although they have declined they may still be of concern based on recent USGS studies of tree swallows,” she said.
The news has not been so rosy for seals. In collaboration with The Marine Mammal Center, the RMP analyzed harbor seal blood for PFOS and found that concentrations since 2006 exhibit similar spatial trends as for bird eggs, but no declines. “It’s a mystery why one part of the Bay has different concentrations from another, and why birds are better off now but seals not,” said Sedlak. “It may have something to do with different diets or longer half-lives of these compounds in seals.”
Sedlak spent the balance of her talk exploring different possible pathways by which these compounds might be entering the Bay, from runoff to wastewater discharges, sediment and the food web. She also discussed the possibility that precursors may be degrading to PFOS. “At present, we just don’t know the pathway by which these compounds enter the Bay food web. It’s likely all of the above,” she said.
One direct pathway for contaminants has always been the wastewater discharged by sewage treatment plants. Alarmingly, many of the medicines and birth control pills people ingest, or throw in the toilet once expired, are taking this route right into the water.
Speaker Francesca Vietor, with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, cited an SFEI report listing 44 different pharmaceutical compounds or metabolites detected in San Francisco Bay sediment or mussel samples. “These compounds are not natural, they’re synthesized and produced for people. Studies show these drugs disrupt fish reproductive cycles and hurt Bay ecology. And with all the antibiotics we’re adding to the environment, we’re essentially cultivating drug resistant bacteria,” said Vietor.
SFPUC has tried various things, from collaborating on collection events with Walgreens and the Bay Area Pollution Prevention Group to sending out pre-paid disposal envelopes upon request. In a pilot program funded by industry to increase the convenience of proper disposal, the PUC worked with 23 pharmacies and police stations to collect nine tons of unwanted pharmaceuticals in 2012.
“We need to educate people not to flush expired drugs or throw them in the trash, especially since sewer facilities are not designed to remove these compounds, and landfills can leach compounds into the Bay. And we need medical professionals and patients to understand the impacts of their reliance on prescription meds downstream. But education alone isn’t enough, without sustainable disposal options. We need more funding to make these options convenient and safe,” said Vietor.
Part of the funding shortfall is that it isn’t quite clear who is responsible for the problem. “If the responsibility falls to the government and the utilities, then public resources are forced to pay for solutions,” she said. And while non-profits and non-governmental organizations have broadcast the problem, they do not have the necessary resources to take on disposal. This leaves the private pharmaceutical companies that are making billions of dollars in profit each year, said Vietor: “Simply put, we need to adopt a new approach that promotes extended producer responsibility, a cradle-to-cradle design.”
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