Pacific Ocean Gets Cranked on Caffeine

New study shows elevated levels of caffeine in the Pacific, arriving via overflowing sewer drains.

(Photo: FoodPix / Getty Images)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Because of runoff, we’ve all seen coastal ocean waters turn a shade of brown most resembling the color of a venti latte.

Now it turns out it’s not just the color of a polluted ocean that deserves a coffee metaphor; according to a new study, the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon literally boasts elevated levels of caffeine.

While caffeine is hardly the biggest threat to the ocean, the fact that it finds its way so easily into the sea via wastewater treatment plants and improper septic systems has treacherous implications for the ocean, since pesticides and pharmaceuticals float into the sea via the same routes.

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Conducted by Portland State University in collaboration with Washington State University in Vancouver, the Oregon study sampled 14 different coastal locations and seven adjacent bodies of water ranging from Astoria to Brookings, Oregon. It was published in the July 2012 Marine Pollution Bulletin, and titled “Occurrence and concentration of caffeine in Oregon coastal waters.”

The initial expectation was that the highest levels of caffeine—like other pollutants—would be discovered near big population centers, or where wastewater treatment plants emptied. But actually the highest concentrations were found near parks, where septic tanks overflowed on account of high winds and rainstorms. This begs the question: Were hikers slamming back too many caffeine-laden energy drinks?

The suggestion is that the wastewater treatment plants are actually doing their jobs, while many septic systems—in coastal areas around the country—are simply not efficient at containing pollution.

Starbucks is not wholly to blame for this scenario, since caffeine is found in a variety of foods and beverages, including tea and chocolate, as well as a variety of pharmaceuticals. One thing the study does suggest is that caffeine has reached a point where it can be measured in our effluent, which means that a lot of people out there are drinking a hell of a lot of coffee.

So far levels are not at a lethal concentration, but we should probably keep an eye out for hyperactive Chinook and sturgeon, which will invariably digest it.

And if levels are high off the coast of Oregon, what must be going on 175 miles north in the waters of the Puget Sound that surrounds Seattle?

Are you worried about the impacts of elevated caffeine levels on the ocean and marine life?

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