Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Seattle has a new claim to fame.  No, it's not coffee, software, airplanes, or even Macklemore.  It's seazombies.  

You can find them in "restored" salmon streams, places we've spent good money to create happy homes for fish.  After our beloved fish make it all the way back home to spawn, a flush of rain washes mysterious toxic chemicals into the water.  Some die, but some suffer a worse fate, they live on as poisoned seazombies.

Marine life in Puget Sound is contaminated with a stew of toxic chemicals.  PCB, PDBEs, PAHs, QRXDs, ABCDs, and even MX47UDPs.  

Could it be Seattle's nasty little PCB habit?  It's probably toxic chemicals, but something more sinister, not so easy to identify as PCBs.

Of course, this isn't just a problem for fish.  Runoff of toxic chemicals into lovely Puget Sound have made our orcas some of the most contaminated marine mammals on earth.  The problem is so bad that baby orcas sometimes die of contamination in their first year.

What does this mean for people?  We eat the same contaminated salmon that the orcas eat.  Uh oh.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Seattle's nasty little PCB habit

We like to blame our PCB problems on a large corporation that makes sophisticated machines or another large corporation that's known for wood products.  Since our salmon and orcas are contaminated with PCBs and these big businesses have effluent pipes, they seem like a logical target.  But when we do the right studies, we find most of the PCBs in our water come from somewhere else.

Who's the PCB villain?  Who is responsible for most of the PCBs that find their way into Puget Sound?  Us.  We are the bad guys.  From the Lake Washington study:
"Approximately 70 percent of the tPCB load to Lake Washington comes from local tributary watersheds around the lake and their stormwater runoff." 
This is not unique to the Lake Washington watershed in the Seattle area, similar results were found in studies of the Spokane River and Puget Sound in Washington, and San Francisco Bay, Chicago, and Toronto.

How do we pollute Puget Sound with PCBs?  Numerous, on-going, diffuse urban sources such as flaking paint or abraded joint caulks used in concrete surfaces and consumer products like paint and printer ink.  Thanks to the PCB loophole, we can actually buy PCB-contaminated products and we can contribute to PCB pollution through disposal of apparently-benign things like printed documents.

We're going to have to look close to home to figure out how to solve our PCB problem.  Can we give up important life-affirming substances like yellow ink with up to 50 ppm PCBs?

Friday, April 25, 2014

The PCB loophole

It's bad, it's poisoning you, and it costs you money.  When we "banned" PCBs, we left a loophole: PCBs are legal as contaminants.

Why does this matter? We're spending real money to clean up waterways like Puget Sound. But we allow PCBs at levels that matter in products like yellow paint.

Now you can probably see the toxic irony that moved me to take the picture on the left. We ask people not to dump, but the worn yellow paint is leaching PCBs into the Sound.

PCBs are hiding in plain view, and we knew that would happen
when we created the PCB loophole. But surprisingly, these contaminant PCBs are standing in the way of public health and a booming economy.  Oops.

As we try to figure out how to get PCBs out of our waterways, contaminant PCBs are emerging as a big picture political problem. Big businesses are worried, governments are trying to manage, and heavy fish-eaters like First Nations outraged by the toxic contamination of their food. This loophole that once seemed tiny is emerging as a possible driver of important public policy debates.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

PCBs in fish, WTF?

New sources of PCBs continue to plague fish.  It turns out we only "sort of" banned PCBs back in 1979.

This is the mother of all loopholes: PCBs are still allowed as a contaminant in some products.  Like paint and caulk.  Including the yellow paint in the middle of roads and the caulk used in gutters alongside streets.  These materials break down and drizzle PCBs into road runoff every time it rains.

So as we're paying $millions or even $$$billions to get PCBs out of our rivers, we're also paying public employees to spread shiny new sources of PCBs in our cities to contaminate fish and anyone who eats fish.

Silly us, we thought PCBs were banned!

Until recently, PCBs in fish were blamed on legacy contamination, the old PCBs that are still circulating in aquatic habitats since PCBs are slow to break down.  These so-called legacy PCBs are a problem, but now we know that a major source of PCBs in fish are the PCBs allowed as contaminants are leaching out of building materials and paints and these PCBs continue to flow into water bodies like Puget Sound every time it rains.  Ugh.  Time for some action.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How to tell a story

Do you want to tell a story?  If you're trying to save the world, or a piece of it, then you need to tell a story.  Fortunately, ocean scientist turned filmmaker Randy Olson can help you.  And...surprise...it's easy.

Check out the Connection Storymaker app and get started telling stories that people will actually notice!

Oh, and there's also a Connection Storymaker book, but who reads books anymore?