Mussels: Unlocking secrets to what's in the water

SEATTLE -- An unusual research study is helping to find many of the underlying causes for contaminated beaches and toxic fish; the very issues making headlines again this month and prompting Gov. Jay Inslee to unveil big new policy initiatives.

On a chilly night last October, dozens of volunteers and scientists across the Puget Sound crunched along low tidelands to gather evidence in this unorthodox investigation.

"There you have it!" says Chris Wilke, Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. "Just where we left it."

The stars of this unusual work? Mussels.

"Good sign. They all look alive," says Wilke.

Nine-thousand mussels were carefully placed weeks ago in more than 100 Washington sites, gathering in whatever contaminants lurk in the water around them.

"Yes, we're right here on the busy Seattle waterfront and this is actually important wildlife habitat here," says Wilke, pointing to heavy industrial work in Smith Cove near the Interbay flatlands.

The mussels are safely secured in a cooler. And within each mussel are the secrets of whatever contamination has been present in the water for the last 40 to 60 days.

The Mussel Watch project has been done across the country for many years generating an important data base and timeline for contaminants. In Washington, this year's Mussel Watch project got a special grant to dramatically expand the number of test sites in a pilot project.

'Our first window into the near-shore'

"It's our first window into the near-shore. It's been horribly under observed," says Jim West, Senior Research Scientist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Team Leader for the Toxics in Biota component of the Puget Sound Assessment and Monitoring Program. "And this (mussel project) is really the front line from where contaminants enter Puget Sound."

At labs, the mussels are churned up, and dried. A mass spectrometer reveals the story the mussels are telling us.

The Test Results

"Without further ado" says Jennifer Lanksbury, the coordinator of the Mussel Watch program for the state as she stands in a Lacey auditorium filled with people whose job it is to save Puget Sound. The results told them the culprit is not so much some big factory somewhere but every day products we all use.

  • At 90 percent of the sites, the mussels found flame retardants used on household fabrics, electronics and many other products. When state lawmakers ban one kind of flame retardant, industry makes another kind. Residues make their way to waterways.
  • At 93 percent of the sites, mussels found lingering DDT banned decades ago.
  • At 100 percent of the sites, traces of toxic PCBs -- also banned long ago -- still leaching from paints, sealants, caulking and other uses like electricity transformers.

Also found at every single site? A toxin they call "PAHs." Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are released from car exhaust, fireplaces, oil furnaces, dripping oil, or gas leaking from vessels. PAH's can fall from the air into our water or get washed into Puget Sound through pipes gushing with rainwater that drain from every neighborhood.

Many of those storm drains really do take junk into our environment where it goes up the food chain into the fish and killer whales and other critters. It can get into humans too. But, for scientists and public health authorities, it's hard to know how much is too much.

It's all about pavement of parking lots, roads, and driveways. "That's why we're so interested in impervious surfaces," says West. "Really the ultimate goal is to track the source of these contaminants so we can shut off the tap." That's exactly the goal of Governor Inslee's water quality proposal unveiled last week.

Wilke, with The Puget Soundkeepers Alliance, says his group helped win a legal victory recently mandating enforcement of existing state requirements that new construction also include ways to slow or stop rain from washing contaminants into those storm drains, through use of things like rain gardens or pavement that lets rain soak through it. Wilke says a great example is part of Northgate Mall's new parking lot design. What's really needed, he says, is a way to pay for existing buildings and parking lots to retrofit the problem designs.

Good News, Bad News

Specifically, the results of the Mussel Watch found that levels were very low in remote places. Downright clean, says Lanksbury.

Levels were much higher in urban areas like Commencement Bay's Hylebos waterway, Bremerton's Naval Shipyard, and Seattle's busy Elliott Bay where they found some sobering results. A third of the test mussels near downtown Seattle died - they failed to survive the experiment. In Elliott Bay, scientists have discovered high levels of hormone based contaminants that cause sex changes in some bottom fish. Yet even in Elliott Bay, there are improvements over time.

Lanksbury sees them all as mixed results.

"So for us that indicates that the Puget Sound is doing pretty well except in a certain few areas where the contamination I think is a lot higher," she says. "And so those areas where we need to concentrate our efforts."

Surprising Hot Spots

There were also some surprising hot spots, including Salmon Bay at the mouth of the Chittenden Locks. They found unexpectedly high levels of petroleum. Is it from boats and ships up stream? Industries? Contaminated mud? Or a new mystery source?

"It raised our eyebrows," Lanksbury says. "And I think it made us think we need to go back there and take a closer look."

West sees hope although he concedes he's concerned about not just the health of fish but humans too. "We're measuring a few of the tens of thousands of contaminants that are out there," he says. "And we're measuring the ones we think are most important. But I am certainly - I'm absolutely certain that there are contaminants out there that are causing effects that we are totally unaware of."

But the Mussel Watch funding from the federal government is on the chopping block. With or without funding, though, mussels will remain the silent sentinels.