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Down the drain and into our ecosystem

On a sunny day, the ponds are nearly as pretty as nearby Long Lake. The mountains reflect off the still water, birds take off periodically and moose and bear have even been known to come by for a dip.

On a sunny day, the ponds are nearly as pretty as nearby Long Lake. The mountains reflect off the still water, birds take off periodically and moose and bear have even been known to come by for a dip.

How it all smells is another matter. Some ponds stink like a well-used Port-A-Potty left out to bake in the sun.

Officially known as the Livingston Trail Environmental Control Facility, the Whitehorse lagoons are made up of seven man-made ponds. Human waste travels through the ponds and is cleaned before it ends up in the Yukon River.

Every year the City of Whitehorse generates four million cubic metres of sewage that flows through 160 kilometres of pipes. About 85 per cent of the waste ends up in the Whitehorse sewage lagoon.

Despite the substandard scent, Devon Yacura spends a lot of his time at the lagoon. Sometimes in a canoe.

The master’s student is collecting water and bug samples to test the amount of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the lagoon, and to see how that impacts the bugs that birds eat.

The high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in human waste make the ponds basically a smorgasbord for bugs. In the hot summer months there are so many of the tiny critters that the water changes colour to a red hue.

“You can just take a net and scoop it through the water and your net will be full of bugs,” Yacura said.

The bugs, in turn, attract copious amounts of birds. “There’s more birds at the sewage lagoons than at a lot of the natural wetlands,” he said.

Research found at least eight breeds of ducks that nest in the area, along with shorebirds and small songbirds.

But if the lagoon contaminates the bugs’ water, what does that do to the birds consuming them?

Yacura began investigating that question at the lagoon in 2010. His preliminary research tested for 33 different chemicals found in pharmaceuticals and personal cleaning supplies like shampoo.

It was the first study of its kind ever to be done in the North.

He sampled the water, the sludge and the bugs.

All 33 of the chemical he was looking for were found, though most were only at trace levels.

Of the chemicals found, the three highest levels were of acetaminophen - the main ingredient in painkillers like Tylenol - caffeine, and triclosan - an antimicrobial found in soaps, shampoos, dish detergents, baby toys and garbage bags, among other things.

At first glance, the early results don’t set off any alarm bells, Yacura said.

“It’s not a big risk, there’s nothing to be concerned about: no ‘Oh my God we’ve got to save the ducks,’” he said.

“I think, because we’re only 25,000 people, we don’t have that huge population to be dumping really high levels of these contaminants into the water.”

But the findings have led him to do more work.

This year Yacura will be doing a more detailed investigation. First, he’ll look at how the concentration of chemicals changes over the year.

“There’s ducks that go there in the spring, there’s ducks that nest there and then there are ducks that come back and use it in the fall,” he said.

Second, the research will examine how efficiently the lagoon system removes those chemicals.

Last, Yacura said he would like more data on the state of the bugs themselves.

While the chemicals in the water are only in trace amounts, Yacura is continuing his research to look at long-term impacts.

In particular, synthetic musks - anything that makes your products smell good - are a possible concern.

Similar to when you put oil in water, those chemicals don’t like getting wet. So when they’re in a lagoon they are more likely to be absorbed by an animal, Yacura said.

“Those chemicals are more prone to accumulate in bugs, fish, birds, so those types of chemicals, even though they might be at a lower concentration, they might be more of a concern.”

It’s hard to know how these findings compare to the rest of the country, he said.

Whitehorse’s system takes up about 300 hectares, he said. The ponds themselves take half of that area up.

“The Whitehorse system is kind of unique, because we have so much space here, we can have a massive lagoon treatment system. But a city like Calgary and Toronto, they don’t have space to have a lagoon so they have very high tech equipment… It’s hard to compare that to the sewage lagoon,” he said.

The early research was only exploratory, but Yacura’s findings led him to want to do more.

Yukon Bird Club president Cameron Eckert is keeping an eye on the results, too. He is also on Yacura’s research advisory committee.

Eckert said it’s important for northerners to be aware of what they put down the drain.

“When we’re finished washing our hair or using a product that’s not the end of the life of that product, it goes into the system and endures in the environment,” he said.

“A lot of people are going to be interested, but also surprised and to some extent concerned about the persistence of chemical compounds in the environment.”

Eckert said the research is an important first step to answer a larger question.

“It will be interesting to know, are these chemicals and compounds showing up in wild birds and wildlife?” he asked.

“I’m not certain that Devon’s research in the next two years will get to that point, but these are important questions that have been raised by Devon’s preliminary findings.”

It will be a while before Yacura expands his research to testing birds. That takes a lot more paperwork and a lot more planning, he said.

“Right now I am just focusing on the bugs. Maybe a PhD, down the road - then I’ll look at the birds.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at