What’s in Our Water?

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

This much already is known: industrial products used as flame-retardants can have adverse, long-term effects on wildlife and humans. Now, a professor at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography wants to find out how much of these compounds are in the Narragansett Bay watershed.

Rainer and Graduate School of Oceanography student Victoria Sacks started the two-year study last fall. Lohmann is sure there are flame-retardants, which have routinely been added to plastics and polyurethane foam for several decades, in the watershed, but he wants to find out in what concentration and where they are entering.

“There’s no reason why certain chemicals are still being used today,” Lohmann said. “The compounds in flame-retardants can potentially mess up hormonal systems. Fertility rates are down across most industrialized countries and there is a link to compounds of widespread use. It’s difficult to say which compound is doing what, but there are documented concerns with flame-retardants.”

Flame-retardants that feature these harmful chemicals, which are added to computer plastics, foam mattresses, upholstery, children’s pajamas and commercial textiles to slow the spread of fire, have been banned in Europe, and no new production is allowed in the United States.

While momentum is building to reduce and eliminate the use of these compounds, about 100,000 tons are still produced worldwide every year, according to Lohmann.

Some states, including Maine and California, have banned the sale of products containing the most dangerous of these compounds, but most states, including Rhode Island, have not taken such steps.

These flame-retardant compounds have been found in house dust, sewage sludge, fish, birds, mammals and human breast milk.

The study also is looking at the concentration levels of two other emerging pollutants in the bay watershed.

While the Narragansett Bay watershed has a long history of exposure to potential contaminants, from industrial operations to agriculture to coastal development, a new list of pollutants is emerging as the understanding of how human-made compounds react in the environment increases.

Certain contaminants, such as petroleum products and PCBs, have long been recognized as detrimental to the environment. However, compounds that are used in personal-care products and detergents are now proving to be of some concern when they find their way into the environment.

Personal-care products comprise a broad and diverse collection of thousands of chemical substances, including perfumes, cosmetics and sunscreen lotions.

Sewage treatment plants are not engineered for the removal of personal-care products, and most of their by-products are pumped with treated effluent into waterways.

“They might have an impact down the road because there is such a huge production volume,” Lohmann said.

Lohmann, who has a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry, however, is more concerned about the chemicals widely used in detergents and their impact on the environment.

“Society uses a lot of products that the planet wasn’t made to handle,” he said. “There’s fifty to one hundred thousands chemicals registered for production and we know a few hundred are bad. There’s a big gray zone and we’re trying to figure out ways to catch the most likely compounds of concern. The bay has thousands of chemicals in it and the impact of one is difficult to determine.”

Lohmann and Sacks are testing various areas throughout the Narragansett Bay watershed to determine the chemical concentration levels of flame-retardants, personal-care products and detergents. They hope to publish the results of their study by the end of next summer.