Study to look at treated wastewater dangers

November 30, 2007

There are always surprises when humans begin to fool around with the natural environment, warns Dr. Jeff Curtis, an associate professor at UBCO.

And, by discharging treated wastewater into Okanagan Lake, Okanagan River, or by spray irrigation onto fields in the Vernon area, we are altering the natural way of things in this basin.

He is embarking on a project to study the impacts of endocrine disruptors being flushed from wastewater treatment plants in the Okanagan Valley, in a joint initiative of the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council, several levels of government and the university.

Seed money of $30,000 for the project has been approved by the stewardship council, but Curtis estimates a further $65,000 or so will be needed over the two years to complete the job.

It will likely be a two-year thesis project for a graduate student, but it’s something that could probably be done in a couple of months, if more money was available.

However, research into endocrine disruptors, substances which disrupt the normal function of an organism, is relatively new globally, and Curtis says it’s not known how important speed is.

Endocrine disruptors are found in pharmaceuticals such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, as well as pesticides and plasticizers, and can be flushed through the body and through sewage treatment systems.

There is evidence they can feminize fish, other aquatic creatures and the birds which feed on them.

“They affect the function of organisms,” explained Curtis. “We should be concerned for ourselves and for the ecosystems,” he said.

Since the Okanagan has one of the lowest per capita water supplies in Canada, if any place in the country should be concerned this community should.

With little precipitation in the valley, water in Okanagan Lake takes about 60 years to flush.

“In a low water basin with a high population, you could expect problems with your water supply,” he commented.

It’s further complicated because the wastewater discharges are into water systems, and also because of the possibility of impacts on groundwater sources in the Vernon area where spray irrigation is used to treat wastewater, he explained.

All of our treatment methods focus on nutrient reduction, he noted, because that was the concern when they were built.

He said one possible way of dealing with endocrine disruptors may be the use of adsorbents, but they could be costly. Use of a different level of ultraviolet light could also be effective.

Samples will be taken in the treatment plants, comparing the water being fed in, and the water that’s been processed, then to the receiving waters, which for Kelowna would be Okanagan Lake.

A mass spectrometer at UBCO will be used to analyze the samples, beginning with a search for estradiols, which are naturally-occurring hormones, found particularly in women.

He predicted there will be more questions than answers at the completion of the study.