How Sweet (or Spicy) is Your Water?


We often hear about the unpleasant pollution that ends up in our rivers and bays, but how’s this for a sweet surprise: Our local waters are often awash with cooking spices and flavorings.

On a recent trip to Puget Sound—a major body of water off the coasts of Washington State and British Columbia—I collected water samples with University of Washington associate professor Richard Keil (left), who heads the Sound Citizen project.

Keil and his college-student team solicit water samples from volunteers throughout Washington State and analyze traces of spices and flavorings. Keil’s goal? To remind people that “that everything you do is connected to the watershed,” he said.

He has even noticed there are “pulses” of food ingredients that enter the sound during certain holidays.

For instance, thyme and sage spike during Thanksgiving, cinnamon surges all winter, chocolate and vanilla show up during weekends (presumably from party-related goodies), and waffle-cone and caramel-corn remnants skyrocket around the Fourth of July.

Of all the flavors trickling downstream, artificial vanilla dominates the sound, Keil said. (See some of the spicy data here.)

For now, there’s no evidence that a sweeter and spicier sound is bad—salmon, which can smell such flavors, may even be enjoying their vanilla-enhanced habitat.

To begin investigating that question, this fall Keil and colleagues plan to study whether cooking ingredients harm the reproduction of octopuses in Puget Sound—though he said he’d “be disappointed to see they have an impact.”

That’s because the spice project has become a useful recipe for educating people, especially schoolkids, about the links between our kitchens and our watersheds.

It’s worked so well that Sound Citizen is currently developing a curriculum for school groups on humans’ role in the environment. (Get more details here.)

“Cooking spices is a lead-in to [talking about] the serious stuff,” like the toxic chemicals, he said.

Speaking of spiciness, there are other compounds in Puget Sound that can drive home the same message: Keil and his team has also been testing for traces of Viagra, for instance. “We don’t mind when the guys at the bar laugh at us,” Keil said.

Some Green Effect submitters don’t need any more convincing—they’ve already realized their downstream impacts.

One submitter in Cos Cob, Connecticut, wanted to use prize funds to give river residents educational toolkits about how lawn runoff feeds directly into Long Island Sound.

Another person in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, suggested installing chemical-free drain-scouring devices in elementary schools, which would cut down on polluted sewage flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

And if you live in Washington State and want to test your waters, you can request a kit here. After all, maybe it’s “thyme” for you to save your local waters!

Christine Dell’Amore

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–Find about the dirty dozen chemicals lurking in your cosmetics.

–Season’s greenings: Make your holiday more earth-friendly.

Photograph by Christine Dell’Amore

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.