Contaminants of emerging concern in the Salish Sea

Thousands of different compounds are produced and used as part of our daily lives.  Examples include pharmaceuticals (NSAIDs, birth control pills, etc), personal care products (sun screen agents, scents, preservatives, etc), food additives (artificial sweeteners) and compounds used in industrial and commercial applications (flame retardants, antibiotics, etc).  Advances in analytical methods have allowed the detection of many of these compounds in the environment.

CECs include pharmaceuticals and thousands of other commonly used chemical compounds. Photo courtesy of EPA.
CECs include pharmaceuticals and thousands of other commonly used chemical compounds. Photo courtesy of EPA.

We know they are present at low levels in rivers, streams, and the marine waters of Puget Sound.  However, there are many unknowns: we do not know the extent to which they occur, it is not clear how they behave in the environment, and the risks they impose are not well-defined.

These types of compounds have been loosely classified into a group known as Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs).  In general, CECs:

  • are unregulated;
  • are poorly characterized in terms of occurrence (and/or occurrence patterns); and
  • have the potential, or are suspected to cause adverse ecological impacts.

Due to the fact that there are thousands of CECs and many unknowns, the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program (PSEMP) has undertaken a project to prioritize and focus the monitoring and investigation of CECs in the region.  The results of this project will help guide and focus regional scientists and policymakers, and be part of a rational, scientifically-based response to the presence of CECs in the environment.



Jill Brandenberger - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (

Andy James - Puget Sound Institute at University of Washington Tacoma (

About the Author: 
Andy James is a research scientist focusing on issues related to water quality and water quantity in the Puget Sound. He holds a B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from Oregon State University, a M.Eng. in Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Washington. Areas of research interest include the remediation of subsurface contaminants utilizing biological methods, the fate and transport of nutrient in estuarine systems, stormwater treatment technologies, and the potential role for science to inform and improve policy. Dr. James has about 10 years of experience in the public and private sector. He has worked as a consulting engineer focusing largely on the design, construction, and operation of remediation systems, and was the lead Engineer at the United States Agency for International Development in Mozambique, focusing on transport and water sector issues.