Lake Whatcom's condition -- by Marc Lappe, PhD

Dr. Marc Lappe, an internationally known toxicologist and public health specialist, reviewed the recent data regarding Lake Whatcom. .
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Declaration of Marc Lappe, PhD

1.0 Background and qualifications

My name is Marc Lappe. I hold a doctorate in Experimental Pathology from the University of Pennsylvania and have written and published in the areas of public policy, toxicology and ethics. Since 1968, I have published 125 articles including 13 books in which I have been the principal author or editor. I directed the State of California's Hazard Evaluation System. (1978-1981) and currently direct the Center for Ethics and Toxics (CETOS) in Northern California. I currently serve as a Consultant to the FDA's General and Plastics Surgery Division of the Center for Medical Devices and am a charter member of the March of Dimes President's Ethics Advisory Committee. I have taught public health policy and toxicology in the Schools of Public Health in the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago where I held a tenured full professorship before starting CETOS in 1993-94. I have been court approved as an expert witness on the human health effects of various water toxicants in six different jurisdiction, including Jacksonville Florida, Woburn Massachusetts; Inskter Michigan; and New Brighton Minnesota. Currently, CETOS advises local municipalities about water quality and potential sources of contaminants in their water supplies.      back

2.0 Scope and Methods of Analysis

In preparing this analysis, I have reviewed the Lake Whatcom Watershed Cooperative Drinking Water Protection Project and documents which describe the specific toxicity of identified water contaminants. The purpose of the report is to identify the likely impacts to human health of adding approximately 6,289 [residential] units to the watershed surrounding Lake Whatcom. In so doing, it is important to note that I will be making informed judgments and inferences based on my experience as a water toxicologist. Without precise drinking water levels of specific contaminants in treated potable water derived from the Lake, direct estimations of human health effects are difficult. However, the existence of specific contaminants in the Lake Whatcom basin and the evidence of the sources of their inflow, permits reasonable inferences on the continuing impact of urbanization on water quality.     back

3.0 Chemicals of Concern

3.1 Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. The presence of high sediment levels of PAHs in Basin 1 of Lake Whatcom is indicative of prior contamination with petroleum derived chemicals. The observed levels (14,600 ug/kg of sediment) are extremely high, and are likely to remain a reservoir of contaminants in the Lake water proper over the next few decades. Surface waters of tributaries to the lake contain several PAHs of health concern at levels at or above those which generate a cancer risk of 1 in a million namely benzo(a)pyrene, benzo(k)fluoranthrene and benzo(b)fluoranthrene, each of which is present at levels ranging from 5 -10 times higher than the Human Health criteria value of 0.0028ug/L. Additional PAHs of concern in contributing waterways include chrysene and fluoranthene. Without further treatment and removal. (e.g. through activated carbon filtration), the continuing flows of PAHs at these levels would make Lake Whatcom water an unacceptable drinking water source. The likely impact of further development and accompanying increase in combustion byproducts would only add to this contaminant level.       back

3.2 Phthalates. The most ubiquitous contaminant in the Lake Whatcom system is diethylhexylpthalate also described as bis (2-ethyhexly) phthalate. This chemical is widely used plasticizer which is proven animal carcinogen. Its use in children's toys has recently been banned and its continued presence as an additive to medical tubing and blood bags in under review. At the present levels in the Lake Whatcom system, several samples exceed the permissible level of 1.8 ug/L under the National Toxics Rule of 1992. The likely source of this contaminant is from insufficiently processed human wastes and sewage discharges. Further development will likely increase the water burden of this and related phthalates.      back

3.3 Pesticides. An index of urbanization on consequent water contamination is the level of pesticides used in human activities, such as gardening and pest control. While the presence of several of the pesticides listed on Table R-5 (page 4 Watershed Report) are likely the result of consumer use (as reflected by buyer surveys), others, notably pentachlorophenol (PCP), are not. The chlorphenoxy herbicides are the most highly represented class: this group is associated with adverse health effects such as non-Hodkin's lymphoma in heavy users.      back

  • Organophospate pesticides, such as diazinon, malathion and chlorpyrifos (Dursban) are common household or garden chemicals. Each has human health risks from direct use and contact: at the relatively low levels found in the major tributaries feeding the Lake, they are unlikely to produce detectable health effects in adults. However, the Cable Street drain (nearest the inlet valve for the water system) has clearly potential toxic levels of all three pesticides (See page 59). Childhood and infant exposure to even low levels of such organophospates pesticides is undesirable in part because of recently uncovered evidence of interference by Op's on bone formation. (See JE Compston et al, "Reduced bone formation after exposure to organophosphates" Lancet 354; 1791-1792, 1999), and the as yet uncertain effects of OP exposure on neurological development. Continued use of approved pesticides by gardeners will likely continue unabated, and with further urbanization, will inevitably lead to degradation of water quality through runoff.      back
  • The presence of pentachlorophenol which was detected at the highest levels of any pesticide studied is cause for serious concern. PCP is a liver toxin and a suspected human carcinogen. The Cable Street runoff location where values (0.33 to 0.41 ug/L) well in excess of those necessary to protect human health were found is of particular concern. The Cable Street Tributary is very close to the intake valve for the Bellingham water supply. Additionally, PCP's ubiquitous presence in all waterways leading to the Lake suggests logging residues of treated lumber may be a continuing source of pollution of the water. The as yet unmeasured contribution to water contaminants from the burden of sunken logs and timber in Basin 1 should be closely monitored.      back
  • The presence of dieldrin, at levels significantly above the National Toxics Rule Criteria value of 0.65 ug/L is also of serious concern (See Table R-12), as this chemical is a proven animal carcinogen whose use and registration have been suspended by the EPA.      back

3.4 Fecal Coliforms.

Unacceptably high (e.g. greater than 200 units) of E. coli have been routinely collected from all tributaries. This marker bacterium is a bellwether for many other human pathogens. As indicated in my previous report, the additional presence of cryptosporidium in Austin Creek is a major health concern should the water quality of Lake Whatcom itself deteriorate to the point where cryptosporidium survives in large numbers. Such high numbers of coliforms suggest that the existing, clay pipe sewer system may be failing, that pet waste may be contaminating surface waterways, or some combination of factors. The common denominator is development and concomitant loss of protective, buffering vegetation. The continued presence of bacterial (and presumably viral) contaminants would predictably lead to further deterioration of drinking water quality from the Lake Whatcom source because of the necessity of excessive chlorination of the water and the concomitant buildup of chlorination byproducts posing a human cancer risk.     back

3.5 Other Chemicals of Concern.

The presence of several chemicals in the effluent from the several streams clearly suggests inadequate sewage treatment and periodic overflows: caffeine serves as an indicator chemical. Left out of the analysis are the other chemicals of human health concern which commonly are also related via sewage effluent: oral contraceptive hormones and antibiotics. There is no indication that either of these chemical classes has been examined. They should be assiduously sought in the treated water and remedial action taken if necessary.      back

4.0 General Comments and Observations

The Lake Whatcom watershed is already compromised by urban development as indicated by the presence of human-related contaminants in water samples from the Lake proper and from the finished water tested by the City of Bellingham. Even after treatment, significant residues of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), phthalates, and heavy metals will likely remain in the water: such chemicals and metals have in fact been reported in finished water. (City of Bellingham, Test Results from 1997).      back

Studies since 1988 clearly indicate that water quality in the Lake Whatcom system is deteriorating. Data on dissolved oxygen and temperature regimes, clearly indicate water quality degradation is occurring. (Matthews et al, 1997).      back

To add further urban runoff to this system is quite clearly inviting a further downward spiral, as additional organic nitrogen and phosphorous encourage algal blooms, eutrophication and further loss of water quality. More critically based on analyses of the major tributaries to the Lake, the existing record of the impact urbanization threatens to add sufficient additional burdens of chemicals to render the Lake unusable as a water source without punitively expensive treatment protocols.      back

The Lake is already an impaired or threatened water body based on its present load of aroclors (PCB-1254 and 1260). Austin Creek, the Cable Street and Park Place drains, Cemetery Creek, Lincoln and Fever Creek are all sufficiently contaminated with fecal coliforms to also qualify for impaired status. Cable Street in particular, and the other sources generally, add chemicals of ongoing health concern to the lake Sediment. In the former instance, high levels of PCPs are still entering the Lake System. Since some of these creeks and drains feed the Lake from existing urbanized areas, the ongoing contribution of contaminants will only be exacerbated by further development. None of the "ecological recommendations" presented in the Report (see page xi) include the desirability of new construction. On the contrary, the Report properly points to areas seriously in need of remediation. It is difficult to reconcile these remedial steps with a concurrent process of development.      back

To assert, as the authors of the report do in their summary, that Lake Whatcom is no different from other urban water sites in Northern Washington misses the salient point buried in the Report proper (page 46) that he median levels of contaminants found in the Lake Whatcom/Whatcom Creek drainages were consistently higher than those found in comparable drainages measured in the NAWQA survery. The Whatcom lake bed is already sufficiently contaminated with at least three byproducts of human activities [ (indeno(1,2,3 c,d) pyrene; dibenzo(a,h) anthracene, and bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate] to impede the survival of benthic organisms. Further development would likely increase this already unacceptable burden.      back

From an ecological view point, the present level of aroclors in the Lake is also substantially above any acceptable level. Every single sample of kokanee trout and smallmouth bass sampe taken exceeded the National Toxics Rule for PCB-1254 and 1269. This means fish taken from the lake cannot be safely eaten by pregnant women and children. These data clearly indicate that Lake Whatcom has already been adversely impacted by human activity and resultant contamination.      back

What is needed now is clearly a "cease and desist" order to restore Lake Whatcom and prevent further deterioration. The system as a whole is already stressed by urbanization. From my perspective as a health professional and public policy analyst, it would be totally inappropriate to add still more housing units to this already damaged system if it is going to continue to be used as a water source, recreation area or potential fishery.      back

The facts and opinions reported in the forgoing are accurate to the best of my knowledge. Submitted under penalty of perjury under the laws of the States of California and Washington, this 2nd day of December, 1999.

Marc Lappe, PhD
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