Vanilla Sound

Photograph: Mary Levin/University of Washington

Richard Keil stands ankle-deep in the tidal flats below Seattle’s Magnolia Bluff, tugging some test strips from his backpack. The bluff rises gently behind him, and the rippled sand is slowly disappearing beneath the rising tide. Before him, Puget Sound sparkles in the July sun.

“The thing we find the most of in Puget Sound is artificial vanilla,” he says, scooping water into a cube-shaped collapsible bottle.

Keil is an associate professor in the Keil Lab of Aquatic Organic Geochemistry at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography. What he’s demonstrating is a water-testing kit developed by the lab’s new nonprofit effort, SoundCitizen. The group aims to build a citizen-based water-sampling network for Puget Sound. Its inaugural project, Environmental Spices, offers water-sampling kits online at Designed for individuals or school groups, the kits include a few test strips, a sample bottle, and a postage-paid mailing label. Participants use the strips to test basic water qualities, like pH levels, before collecting water samples to send back to the lab along with a GPS location. The Aquatic Organic Geochemistry Lab analyzes the sample for spices, industrial chemicals, and perfumes, and posts the results online. Researchers can identify more than two hundred commonly found chemical compounds including caffeine, cooking spices, and additives used in cigarettes and household cleaners.

The program is already popular, with more than seven hundred kits distributed and lots of coverage in regional media.

“We’ve kind of become a holiday favorite,” Keil says. SoundCitizen can literally track the holidays by what shows up in the Sound. After Thanksgiving and Christmas, the water is laced with thyme and vanilla, re-entering the sound via water treatment plants. After Valentine’s Day, an excess of ethyl vanilla — used in making chocolate — turns up. The Puget Sound Indians had a saying extolling the region’s abundance of shellfish: “When the tide is out, the table is set.” It seems that when the tide comes in, the table is set again — with leftovers.

It’s all in good fun, but the program has a more serious side, too. On many fronts, Puget Sound is threatened. Seattle’s industrial history, from paper pulp mills to Boeing, has left a legacy of point-source pollution. Agricultural chemicals and leaky septic systems sully the water; storm water runoff from rampant development pours household pollutants into the mix. Pharmaceuticals and artificial hormones, which aren’t removed by water treatment processes, are also turning up in water supplies. So why not test the water for toxic things, instead of harmless cinnamon-latte runoff?

According to Keil, harmlessness — and humor — is exactly the point. SoundCitizen discourages people from using the testing kits to support water quality activism. That’s not because they’re unconcerned about water quality. Much of their research tracks emerging pollutants such as lilial and muskonate, fragrance additives that can become toxic in large quantities. But their main goal is education.

“We’re always telling kids, ‘everything you do is bad,'” Keil says. “We take kids out and talk to them about the environment and they think one of two things. They think: ‘People older than me have screwed up the environment.’ Or they think: ‘Everything is bad — I don’t even want to think about this.'” SoundCitizen wants to avoid that. Their kits provide a way of demonstrating the connection between people and the watershed without being a total bummer.

“I don’t mind if people laugh at us,” Keil declares, water sample in hand. “I don’t mind if kids laugh about vanilla pee or the guys in the bar laugh about whales getting Viagra. They’ve understood the concept of connection when they didn’t before.”

Ginger Strandis the author of three books: Flight, a novel, Inventing Niagara, the untold story of America’s waterfall, and Killer on the Road, a history of the interstate highway system told through the stories of the killers who have haunted it. She has published essays and fiction in many places, including Harper’s, The Believer, The Iowa Review, The New England Review and the New York Times, as well as This Land and Orion, where she is a contributing editor.


  1. It makes little sense to me to have kids become aware of vanilla pee or bar customers to joke about whales on viagra and not then encourage the next logical step . . . activism. What’s wrong with getting political? It’s all political at a certain level anyhow. I don’t get it. Not wanting people to be on a “bummer” and cloaking the rationale by creating an artificial goal of just being “educational” is a cop-out. These water kits (which are a fantastic resource and deserve to be available everywhere) are a natural tool for healing the watersheds. What’s wrong with educating folks to take the next logical step(s). Maybe their tax-exempt 501-3c doesn’t allow “advocacy.” Time for the kids and fisherfolk to start other groups.

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