Dear Seattle: Please Stop Peeing in the Pacific

National Geographic is reporting  the discovery of caffeine pollution in the Pacific Ocean along the Oregon Coast, although pollution may be the wrong word:

The Pacific Northwest may be the epicenter of U.S. coffee culture, and now a new study shows the region’s elevated caffeine levels don’t stop at the shoreline.

The discovery of caffeine pollution in the Pacific Ocean off Oregon is further evidence that contaminants in human waste are entering natural water systems, with unknown consequences for wildlife and humans alike, experts say.

I’ve spent some time on the Oregon coast, and I’m a man known to enjoy more than one cup of coffee in the morning, so feel free to direct your ire toward me. Don’t direct it toward Seattle, though. (And yes, I know Seattle is in Washington). It appears that the caffeine is originating from the many rural septic systems located up and down the coast, rather than from the population centers where waste water is treated. But before you lobby your congressman to outlaw coffee, or pee, consider the following from one of the insightful commentors to this story:

45 nanograms per liter is equivalent to a 45 parts per quadrillion or 4.5 x 10^-11. That’s 2.2 grams of caffein (sic)  in ten million tons of water. I agree we should keep track of pollution, but will any creatures get a caffeine high at that level? I am amazed at the incredible sensitivity of our analytical techniques even though I helped develop some of them. Perhaps, though, we should worry more about the really serious contamination which poses a clearly demonstrable hazard.

Now I haven’t double checked this guy’s math, because math is hard. But I do know that we have the ability to detect the most minute levels of pollutants in our waters. I once wrote a letter to the editor explaining that the editor was getting really worked up about a level of pollution that amounted to ‘3 drops in an olympic sized swimming pool.’ That doesn’t excuse the pollution, or mean that we should not track it or be concerned about it. I think what is important is understanding the effect of pollutants on natural systems, understanding the source of these pollutants, and understanding the cycle that allows pollutants to enter the system, move through the system, and either get deposited long-term or flushed from the system. The NatGeo article does state that the impact on natural systems from caffeine in the environment is largely unknown (although it may impact mollusks), and is a problem that has been observed elsewhere.

As to the term ‘pollutant’, the Merriam-Webster dictionary unhelpfully defines pollutant as ‘something that pollutes.’ Digging unnecessarily further into Merriam-Webster, we find that ‘to pollute’ may be defined as “to make physically impure or unclean: befoul, dirty” or “to contanimate (an environment) especially with man-made waste.” By these definitions, maybe caffeine does pollute the Pacific Ocean, even if it ends up having no real harmful effects to natural systems.


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