Sewage lagoon attracts bugs, birds, pharmaceuticals and a scientist

The first whiff from a study of contaminants in a Whitehorse sewage lagoon is at least troubling. Pharmaceuticals and personal care products are making their way into a lagoon where many migratory birds forage and breed.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

The first whiff from a study of contaminants in a Whitehorse sewage lagoon is at least troubling. Pharmaceuticals and personal care products are making their way into a lagoon where many migratory birds forage and breed.

But before an interviewer can panic at the news, or even lift a scented hanky, biologist and lagoon explorer Devon Yacura provides some calming words:

“From my sampling and results and reading the literature of other waste-water treatment plants, the concentrations in the sewage lagoon in Whitehorse are right in the realm of where I expect they would be – given the size of Whitehorse and the general guidelines that Canada follows.”

“It is an issue,” admits Yacura. “Obviously we don’t want any pharmaceuticals going into the sewage lagoon and then going into the Yukon River.” The important thing for him is that we know just what harmful elements are entering our waste water so we can reduce concentrations or eliminate them altogether.

Yacura, a graduate student with the University of Alberta who is now based at Yukon College, is taking a close look into the lagoon water and all creatures, great and microscopic, that come in contact with it.

His project got its start back in Victoria where Yacura, who studied at University of Victoria and Royal Roads University, was encouraged by students down from the Yukon to seek his intellectual fortunes in the North.

It all began simply enough – with a job search. “I couldn’t find a job right away, but I’m a birder so I got connected with the Whitehorse Bird Club, specifically Cameron Eckert. I talked to him about ideas for places to apply to and people to talk to.”

Ornithologist Eckert suggested Yacura seek out funding for research into the municipal sewage lagoon. “It’s such a neat place,” says Yacura. “It treats all of Whitehorse’s waste and at the same time is creating amazing bird habitat.”

“It’s one of the best spots for birding in and around Whitehorse … and in the Southern Lakes even,” he says.

Yacura, plunged into this bug and bird heaven. “I just loved my summer out there, collecting data, counting ducks.” After that 2010 project, he wanted to conduct more research in the sewage lagoon.

Maybe “wanted” isn’t a strong enough word. Perhaps “yearned” would be better. Discoveries were leading to very pressing questions, and not only the ones in his own head. “People were asking, ‘Is there any chance that those ducks are at any risk being in the sewage lagoon?’”

The answer depends in large part on what is stewing in the sewage.

“I knew I wanted to do my master’s at the sewage lagoon and I was looking for a thesis topic and somehow the idea came to look at pharmaceuticals in the lagoon.” Along with residue from prescription and non-prescription drugs, water samples revealed artificial musks – inorganic chemicals that sweeten the scents of deodorants, shaving creams, cleaning products, shampoos and a host of other “necessities” for our daily lives.

To his knowledge no one had previously tested the Whitehorse lagoon for pharmaceuticals and personal care products, says Yacura. But Whitehorse is far from alone in that oversight, or misplaced priority. Across Canada perhaps fewer than one per cent of the similar municipal lagoon facilities have been tested, he says.

“It’s such a new field of research,” says Yacura. But he adds that over the next 10 years many more Canadian waste-water lagoons will likely be monitored for contaminants. There is plenty of published literature on waste water out there – but much of this writing isn’t specifically about lagoons. The data tends to concentrate on the mechanical water-treatment methods of smaller facilities, he says.

The research that is being done takes place in more highly populated regions, like southern Ontario, where municipalities do not have room to construct whopping lagoons like the 300-hectare operation in Whitehorse. “So, though there is a lot of literature out there on pharmaceuticals in waste-treatment plants, I find it difficult to find directly comparable data,” Yacura says.

Based on his own field research the biologist knows that our lagoon hosts an abnormally high population of invertebrates – thanks to all the nitrogen and phosphorous in human sewage. Algae, phytoplankton and bacteria thrive – and are called upon to nourish creatures further up the dining ladder. “The more growth you have at the base of the food chain, the more growth you have as you go up the food chain,” he says.

As for the objectives of his current lagoon research, Yacura is looking at toxin-removal efficiency: How effectively does the Whitehorse sewage lagoon remove pharmaceuticals? How does the concentration of chemicals change over spring, summer and fall – when migration is at its highest level? How does all that relate to bird life and to passing carnivores that feed on birds?

“Obviously birds are being attracted to the lagoon by the high number of bugs.” Are the bugs providing a smorgasbord of

pharmaceuticals and personal care products for foraging birds?

Can birds be contaminated while simply resting in lagoon water?

Confronted by ever greater waves of waste and sewage, rapidly expanding municipalities elsewhere will likely soon be calling out for more initiatives like those Yacura is undertaking here in Whitehorse.

“My research is a broad, preliminary study to get the ball rolling,” he says.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at

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