Cocaine, Spices, Hormones Found in Drinking Water

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
November 12, 2009

This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National Geographic's Freshwater Web site.

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. (See map.)

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.

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.

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