Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Protecting California’s Marine Environment from Flushed Pollutants


Big cities produce a lot of sewage, which often contains pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, and caffeine. These flushed pollutants can remain in wastewater even after processing by a wastewater treatment plant, and may have negative effects on marine organisms and ecosystems if introduced into the marine environment. California is home to Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose—three of the ten most populous cities in the United States. All three are located in coastal counties and utilize wastewater treatment plants (“publicly owned treatment works” or “POTWs”) that discharge treated wastewater effluent directly is expected to contain increasing concentrations of flushed pollutants, posing a heightened threat to the health of our coasts and the marine environment more broadly. However, monitoring and regulation of flushed pollutants is currently insufficient, allowing them to be introduced into the marine environment undetected. This raises serious concern that flushed pollutants may devastate the marine environment beyond repair. The precautionary principle, a central tenet of environmental law and policy, “asserts that regulators and decision makers should act in anticipation of environmental harm, without regard to the certainty of the scientific information pertaining to the risk of harm.” In the face of great uncertainty as to the amounts of flushed pollutants being introduced into the marine environment and the effects they will have on marine organisms and ecosystems, a precautionary approach is necessary to ensure adequate protection. This Article advocates for policy reform to increase monitoring and regulation of pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, and caffeine in wastewater, and to ultimately minimize the amounts of these flushed pollutants that are discharged into California’s coastal waters.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View