Reduce toxic contaminants to help preserve Puget Sound wildlife

Seattle skyline as seen from the water, with Puget Sound in the foreground
Puget Sound is home to more than 4 million people — and a multitude of wildlife

Toxic pollutants have health impacts throughout the food web, and some can concentrate in the fatty tissues of top predators — such as killer whales. These contaminants include several types of chemical compounds and heavy metals that enter Puget Sound through surface runoff and wastewater outflows. WDFW’s Toxics Biological Observation System (TBiOS) team monitors toxic contaminants in Puget Sound’s aquatic life to help inform agencies and regulators in order to reduce, remove, and remediate toxic impacts.

The endangered Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) population faces multiple challenges threatening their survival, including reduced prey availability (notably Chinook salmon, their primary food source); marine vessel traffic noise; and toxic contaminants affecting their health. Only about half of all SRKW calves survive the first year. For this federal Endangered Species Act-listed population to recover and thrive, healthy, abundant Puget Sound Chinook salmon and clean, quiet waterways are critical.

Puget Sound, where people often spot the SRKW in the summer and fall months, is home to a diverse array of animal species including many types of fish, shellfish, birds, and marine mammals. More than four million people live in the region and depend on the Sound for sustenance, recreation, and their livelihoods. Human activities and population growth have led to an increase in the amount of toxic pollution entering Puget Sound.

Toxic contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can build up through the food web

When waterways that flow to the Sound are polluted, this can affect the health and reproduction of aquatic life such as Chinook salmon. Exposure to some toxics, such as the recently identified 6PPD-q linked to tire dust, can be fatal to aquatic life within hours. Other toxics may interfere with growth and development, increase susceptibility to disease, affect reproduction, and shorten lifespans.

Reduced populations of salmon, especially endangered Chinook, means less food for the SRKW. When killer whales do not get enough to eat, particularly their preferred prey items like Chinook salmon, their bodies break down stored fats in their blubber to sustain them, which can release the concentrated toxics and lead to health problems.

Killer whale calves are at greatest risk from toxics, as they spend most of the first two years of life feeding on their mother’s milk, which is rich in fat — the same fat that stores toxics. This transfers many contaminants from mother to calf, where they quickly accumulate and can lead to failure to thrive in a newborn killer whale.

Many of the most dangerous toxics found in Puget Sound include heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, and contaminants of emerging concern (CECs).

Heavy metals

Heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium are toxic in all forms, while other metals can become toxic if oxidized or combined with other chemicals. These are systemic toxicants that enter the Sound through mining, aquaculture, shipping activity, and even the air. They do not biodegrade, so once they enter the food web they persist and accumulate. At even low exposure levels, heavy metals can cause organ damage, impair growth and reproduction, decrease immune function, and affect behavior. Mercury can pose a serious health risk to infants and children, so the Washington State Department of Health issues fish advisories to provide recommendations and inform the public on mercury and other contaminants in fish and provide recommendations on consumption.

Persistent organic pollutants

Persistent organic pollutants are compounds banned years ago that remain for a long time due to their ability to resist breaking down in the environment. This persistence, along with their tendency to biomagnify (accumulate at higher concentrations up the food web) and high toxicity, makes them particularly dangerous.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are considered the top contaminant of concern in North America. Banned from use in the 1970s, these chemicals were primarily used for coolants and insulators but were also found in motor oil, older fluorescent lighting, caulking, paint, and some plastics. Despite the ban, chemicals with similar structure and toxicity may still enter the environment when they form as a byproduct of other products or chemicals, such as pesticides, or from burning household trash.

PCBs are very stable and remain in the environment for decades, building up in animal tissue through the food web, and are classified as probable carcinogens with damaging impacts on the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.

In Puget Sound, PCBs settle in sediment at the bottom of waterways and the seabed, where microorganisms and bottom feeders ingest them. These are then consumed by herring, which salmon feed on, and the concentrated PCBs are transferred to sea lions, orcas, and humans when they consume contaminated salmon.

Other persistent organic pollutants include PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) — which were used as flame retardants in a wide variety of commercial and consumer products until most were banned in 2009 — and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which arise from both natural events such as wildfires and volcanic eruptions, and when coal, crude oil, wood, gas, or tobacco are burned and smoke is released in the air. PBDEs concentrate in fatty tissues so they rapidly biomagnify up the food web, affecting the thyroid, kidney, and liver, and resulting in neurodevelopmental and endocrine disruption. Although PAHs can be metabolized by fish and thus do not tend to accumulate, they can cause liver disease as well as reproductive, behavioral, growth and immune system problems.

Even though PBDEs have been banned from inclusion in new products, many products containing PBDEs are still in use and some new products made from recycled plastics contain PBDEs. Because of this, PBDEs are still entering the ecosystem, primarily through household trash and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants are not currently required to treat water for PBDEs before discharging.

Contaminants of emerging concern

Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) include a large group of chemical compounds, such as prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, personal care products, food additives, and those used in commercial and industrial applications.

PFAs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals”) are CECs found in everyday-use products such as water-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpet and upholstery, cleaning products, and personal care products. Some of these compounds are undergoing the process of federal regulation, including wastewater monitoring and drinking water standards. Many states, including Washington, have passed laws restricting the use of PFAs in firefighting foam, food packaging, and some consumer products.

Estrogenic compounds are chemicals that mimic or alter the effects of naturally occurring hormone estrogen. These can be found in pharmaceutical products, pesticides, and certain plastics. Exposure to estrogenic compounds can lead to cancer, reproductive and developmental effects, altered immune response, and liver and kidney disease.

One of the most recently identified recognized emerging contaminants, 6PPD-q, was identified in 2020. When vehicle tire dust containing 6PPD (a chemical used in tires and other synthetic rubber products to keep them from breaking down) comes into contact with oxygen, 6PPD-q is created. This compound is so toxic to coho salmon in particular that fish exposed to even low levels of contaminated stormwater can die within hours.

Water flows into a storm drain marked “Keep clean and clear- drains to Puget Sound”
Toxic contaminants build up on roadways and wash down storm drains to be carried to Puget Sound

Reducing toxic pollution entering the environment

Because stormwater and wastewater are key pathways for toxics reaching the waters of Puget Sound, being mindful of the household goods and personal care products we buy, ensuring we maintain our vehicles, and using ecologically friendly products for cleaning and for our yards will help reduce the amount of contaminants entering Puget Sound. Some ways to reduce toxics in everyday life include:

· Recycling and E-Cycling

Recycling plastic or metal food and beverage containers helps keep toxics such as bisphenols and phthalates out of the environment. E-Cycle old electronics to safely dispose of products containing PBDEs, lead, and other heavy metals.

· Maintaining personal vehicles

Change your oil regularly and check for leaks. Motor oil is one of the largest sources of petroleum pollution in the Sound.

Wash your vehicle at a commercial car wash, where water is filtered to remove many toxics, reused and then treated through the wastewater system. Allowing vehicle wash water — which contains petroleum, heavy metals, and 6PPD — to run into storm drains is against the law in many communities.

· Using natural methods to maintain lawns and gardens

Use compost or mulch instead of fertilizer. Choose nontoxic methods for weed and pest control, such as pulling weeds by hand and planting companion plants to deter pests. Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers can harm aquatic life, impact reproduction, and damage the ecosystem by altering water quality.

· Choosing non-toxic cleaning products

Use non-toxic cleaners when possible, avoiding phthalates, phosphates, phenols, and petroleum products. Most aerosol sprays, air fresheners, and room deodorizers have multiple toxic ingredients. Safer Choice, created by the Environmental Protection Agency, identifies effective products with ingredients that are healthier and safer for the environment.

· Selecting safer personal care products

Search for safer alternatives with the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, which provides a chemical profile of product ingredients.

Avoid products containing microbeads, which may be listed as any of the following: Polyethylene (PE), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Nylon (PA), Polypropylene (PP), or Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). These can be ingested by animals, leading to health problems, and they can release toxic compounds as they break down.

Look for products free from endocrine disruptors such as phthalates, parabens, and butylated compounds (BHA and BHT).

· Shopping wisely

When shopping for housewares or clothing, be aware that many waterproof, nonstick and stain-resistant products can contain PFAS. Use the Department of Ecology’s Shop for Safer Products resource to identify less toxic alternatives.

Whenever possible, get an electronic receipt for purchases. Printed receipts can contain toxic chemicals.

· Properly dispose pharmaceuticals

Do not flush medication down the drain. Instead, properly dispose of over-the-counter and prescription medication through the Safe Medication Return program.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.