Exotic species: A survey of the trash that populates our waters

Apr 15, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Living Lands & Waters: photo courtesy of Living Lands and Waters  The Living Lands & Waters crew is in Louisville now for the third straight year.
Living Lands & Waters: photo courtesy of Living Lands and Waters The Living Lands & Waters crew is in Louisville now for the third straight year.
The river cleanup group Living Lands & Waters is offering what the group calls an “industrial strength” cleanup on the Ohio River: five cleanups over the next two weeks. The trash collection barge has been here for more than a week, but it’s not as if there isn’t plenty more to clean.

LEO has reported in the past that this Iowa-based group says the Ohio — backdrop of our city events, source of our drinking water — is by far the filthiest of any they’ve seen.

Louisville is not the source of all the trash that occupies our portion of the mighty river, but we certainly feel its effects. This being the third year the LL&W crew has parked on Kentuckiana banks, the group has an intimate relationship with the trash that lurks below and floats atop our waters. In an effort to help keep us citizens up to speed, the following is a somewhat random Top Five list of things we love toss out with little regard for where they’ll end up.

Tires. Tires are to the Ohio River as pigeons are to Manhattan. There’s hardly a spot where you don’t find them; removal efforts can be maddeningly frustrating; and the rumors that they’re carriers of disease are actually true. The tires lodged firmly in mud along the riverbanks attract rodents the way condos attract yuppies, and the stagnant water they collect is an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes that help spread West Nile virus in this area.

Cigarettes. After smokers have sucked the last bit of comfort out of their cigarettes, many of the remaining butts fly out car windows or get flicked artfully into the nearest gutters. From there they are washed into our waterways, where the hundreds of chemicals in cigarettes, and even the tobacco itself, prove deadly to aquatic life. Water is rather effective at leaching chemicals from dried leaves (tea anybody?), so just one cigarette butt left in a gallon of water for a day is enough to kill about 80 percent of aquatic life added to that water.

Refrigerators. Along with air conditioners, refrigerators contain CFCs and HCFCs (chlorofluorocarbons and hyrdrochlorfluorcarbons). People in Kentuckiana who missed the ozone-hole panic of the early 1990s only have to look to the river to know the problem is alive and well. There’s little evidence of a direct relationship between refrigerator CFCs and the health of freshwater systems because, well, nobody seems to be studying it. However, there’s no evidence that refrigerators are beneficial to aquatic life in any way, so removing them from the river is probably not a bad idea.

Plastic. Plastic is to the Ohio River as plastic is to the supermarket and the big-box retail store and the landfill and the typical American home. Plastic bags, toys, drink containers, furniture, cutlery and everything else are ever-present in our rivers and streams, clogging filtration systems, snagging boat engines and marring riverbanks in especially creepy ways (the number of one-eyed baby doll heads out there is astounding). As plastics break down, they look too much like food for birds and other wildlife to ignore, resulting in choking, poisoning and intestinal damage. The irony of finding the Ohio polluted with bottles of Smartwater and Life Water is difficult to understate.

Unknown Liquids. River cleanup offers plenty of intrigue, often in the form of plastic and metal barrels that give no clue about their contents other than a gentle sloshing sound. They could be barrels of flavoring syrup, or maybe oil or fertilizer. Smaller containers hold everything from paint thinner to power steering fluid. Motor oil is a popular find, a quart of which can contaminate one million gallons of freshwater. In this area, you can find that quart in 20 minutes of cleanup or less. The fertilizer barrels can contain cadmium, a heavy metal that crops can absorb and transfer to humans, causing liver and kidney damage, and diarrheal disorders when ingested. Mm-mmm. If mere traces of heavy metals won’t do it for you, a gnarly piece of scrap metal will surely float by at some point.

If you missed opportunities to get acquainted with some of these popular river characters at past cleanups with local groups or LL&W, fear not: Many of those items hang around for months, even decades. Contact Tammy Becker, LL&W project coordinator, at 309-236-0725, or at [email protected] to sign up for a cleanup.

Contact the writer at
[email protected]