Scientists say wastewater from Colo, Tex niat and Calif discharges contains heavy metals, suggesting extraction methods could be polluting the environment
Salt water from sewage treatment plants in western Colorado, southern California and Texas may contain toxic compounds linked to methamphetamine use, according to a research project launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).
The investigations have alarmed the author of the new study, which suggests the heavy metals, like mercury and chromium, may be entering the bodies of the planet’s poorest people through wastewater from US treatment plants.
A colleague at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Jim Dean, said: “Nasa is normally very interested in understanding the science behind what takes place on the International Space Station and into our atmosphere, and today is no different.”
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This comes at a time when human forces are sweeping away an ecosystem and degrading nature’s fertiliser available to plants and animals.
The authors, who report in the journal Science, suggest that the source of the pollutants is to be found in the wastewater streams that millions of people use to drink, bathe and cook. The wastewater is pumped from sewage treatment plants into rivers and streams that feed lakes and oceans.
They used mathematical models to monitor pollution levels in nine sites near wastewater facilities which flow into the San Francisco Bay or Sacramento River.
They found levels of nickel, chromium, mercury and arsenic, known to cause various respiratory problems, and lead in wastewater through the river were in line with the high levels found in their laboratory models.
“The levels of lead were more than what we’d predict from population,” said Sean Cherlin, a co-author from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The study found high levels of arsenic in the sediment where the bacteria living in the wastewater ecosystem smelt for their food.
The scientists believe the waterways are the “epicentre” for the pollution that originates from human activities, and that the human footprint on water quality is “unclear”.
A Nasa spokesman said: “NASA is an organisation that promotes public understanding of science, technology and space sciences. Recent science studies continue to ask important questions that we, as a public, can better understand.
“We are the nation’s leading gateway for research about our drinking water and its quality and we make best effort to ensure that the data is available to the public at large. We at Nasa are as interested in public understanding and the scientific endeavour as our past and future explorers.”