Caffeine Pollution In Pacific Waters

By Mo Mozuch on August 7, 2012 5:59 PM EDT

photo:reuters
photo:reuters

A study published by Portland State University revealed increasing levels of caffeine emerging in Oregon's waterways.  The study is the first to examine caffeine pollution in the state. Researchers sampled water from 14 locations across the state. To researchers surprise the waters nearest waste treatment plants and large populations did not show the highest concentration of caffeine. High levels were found in Carl Washburn State Park, for example, an area not near any potential pollution sources.

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"Our study findings indicate that, contrary to our prediction, the waste water treatment plants are not a major source of caffeine to coastal waters," Elise Granek, assistant professor of Environmental Science and Management at PSU said in a press release. "However, onsite waste disposal systems may be a big contributor of contaminants to Oregon's coastal ocean and need to be better studied to fully understand their contribution to pollution of ocean waters."

Apparently waste disposal centers are effective in eliminating caffeine pollution from wastewater, but sewer overflows and faulty septic tanks are leaking it into the sea and the groundwater.  Caffeine pollution is seen as an indicator of other understudied contaminants in the ground water. Hydrologist Dana Kolpin told National Geographic caffeine is part of a "contaminant soup" now affecting marine life.

"Caffeine is pretty darn ubiquitous, and there is growing evidence that this and other understudied contaminants are out there," said Kolpin, of the U.S. Geological Survey's Toxic Substances Hydrology Program. "There is a whole universe of potential contaminants including pharmaceuticals, hormones, personal-care products like detergents or fragrances, even artificial sweeteners."

The effects on marine life are unknown and understudied. The levels measured in the study, in nanograms per liter, are far below what constitutes a lethal dose for marine life. Although PSU is conducting a study to see what affect caffeine has on the reproductive capabilities of native mussels in the Oregon region. A University of Washington study published in 2010 found low-levels of artificial flavors occurring regularly in Puget Sound, but had no clear results on the impact on marine life, if any.

Pharmaceuticals in drinking water have been receiving more study in recent years, due in part to an Associated Press investigation in 2008 that found trace amounts of prescription drugs in the water supplies for 41 million Americans. Municipal water suppliers insist that their water is safe to drink.  Even the World Health Organization dismisses the dangers of low-level pharmaceuticals in drinking water, primarily because they distract water sanitation officials from proven threats such as microbial risks. Biologists are more concerned with the impact on organisms in the environment, not necessarily human risk. A  Canadian study revealed that estrogen pollutants can cause fish populations to collapse because male fish become "feminizied" and can't reproduce.  Caffeine pollution detection, if nothing else, helps alert scientists to the presence of other chemicals that are not routinely examined by water companies.

"With caffeine, we're not yet sure about its environmental effects," Kolpin said. "But it's a very nice tracer, even if it doesn't have a large effect, because in most parts of the world, you know that this is coming from a human waste source."

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