Willamette River tops list of toxic waterways

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PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN 6) — The Willamette River is contaminated with toxic chemicals and metals, and in a new study the Department of Environmental Quality said it poses a threat for human health and aquatic life.

Each summer, more than 1,500 people jump into rafts and inner tubes for The Big Float across the Willamette. But the latest study of toxic chemicals in Oregon’s waterways show the largest variety is within the Willamette River Basin.

“It’s not a surprise that it ranks top of the charts with this toxic survey,” Kate Ross with the Willamette River Keeper said.

According to Ross, a big reason the Willamette tested positive for most chemicals is that it flows through some of the most largely populated areas in Oregon: Portland, Salem and Eugene, with farmland in between.

But when you take a closer look at the report, it’s not industrial pollutants getting most of the blame. Most of the chemicals are coming from pesticides and herbicides.

“What I did find surprising was, when you think of the Willamette you think toxics, you think industrial pollution,” Ross said. “But the amount of industrial pollution as compared to the toxics in consumer products, it was significantly smaller.”

Chemicals in weed and bug killers are ending up in the Willamette River through water runoff. It’s the same thing happening with flame retardant chemicals, not just in clothing, but leaching out of electronic equipment and ending up in landfills.

The state report indicated most, but not all, of the chemicals found are in low concentrations. According to the report, many pesticides that are now banned were found in higher concentrations.

The study results, while not ruinous, send a message to homeowners to cut back on the use of chemical pollutants.

“The everyday person can really have an impact in improving water quality in the Willamette, purely by being selective about the kind of products they purchase,” Ross said.

The Willamette River topped the list of waterways by number of unique chemicals. (Courtesy, DEQ)

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