Holiday Spices

The Puget Sound is a large ocean inlet along the northwest coast of the state of Washington on the Pacific Ocean.  Seattle is located on the sound and enjoys being the eighth largest port in the United States.  If you were to visit Seattle today you’d likely visit the Pike Place Market and enjoy the fish vendors tossing fish around, or walk along Pier 66 taking in the view of the city at night.  The water within the sound is a meaningful piece of Seattle and keeping the water clean is important to the prosperity of the city.

Scientists at the Center for Urban Waters within the University of Washington Tacoma are working to understand and quantify the sources, pathways, and impacts of chemical pollution in urban water systems.  One program at the center, called Sound Citizen, studies pollution involving fun compounds, such as cooking spices, and more serious pollution, such as emerging pollutants.  The pollution of cooking spices in water systems is an interesting research area as it’s not an area of pollution that most people think about.  Just like pharmaceuticals that end up in water after passing through the human body, many spices end up in local water systems the same way.  This project focused specifically on spices, acting as a way to help people see the connections between humans and natural environments.

Tracking the presence of cooking spices in the Pudget Sound allows researchers to track the holidays.  In the summer the water contains high amounts of methyl-vanilla, an ingredient found in waffles cones and kettle corn.  After Thanksgiving and Christmas the water is full of vanilla and thyme, entering the sound through the water treatment plants.  At the West Point wastewater treatment plant in Seattle researchers have measured an increase in spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, allspice, thyme and rosemary starting immediately after Thanksgiving and lasting through the New Year. Converting the amount of spices detected in the Puget Sound into the amount of baking spices needed to make chocolate chip, gingerbread and snickerdoodle cookies, researchers determined that about 250,000 cookies were being consumed each day during the 2008 holiday season.  At that time the average person in Seattle was eating two cookies per day!  The population of Seattle has increased by over 50,000 people since 2008 and the amount of spices in the Sound has also likely increased.

At this time the effects of an increase in spices on fish and wildlife have not been explored.  Salmon fish use open-water navigation and a keen sense of smell to find their way back to the very same stream in which they were born.  The spices being detected in the Sound are at levels that fish can easily smell.  Until more research is completed however, the effects of “pumpkin spice everything” on fish and wildlife remain unknown.

(Photo credit: Happy Holidays 2016)