What’s in Our Aquarium Water?

Chemical processes play a vital role in our aquaria, but we may not always know what we’re putting in our water.

It seems that, with each day, people are more concerned about what’s in their water. We see this playing out in the massive public interest in global warming, water safety issues, and concerns about water availability.

Recently, concerns have been raised over bisphenol A, a chemical used to produce many common plastics. Bisphenol A can mimic the hormone estrogen in the human body. Some new research suggests that it may have negative health effects, and bisphenol A is found in the urine of most adults in very low levels. However, the jury is still out and the United States federal government still considers its use safe in consumer goods.

Chemicals, either natural or man-made, can enter the water supply through a number of vectors. Unfortunately, what we put into the water isn’t so easily removed. Consider all of the pathogens, drugs, chemicals and who knows what is entering into the water supply that later turns up in unexpected places.

Chemical Soup
Evidence suggests wild fish populations are experiencing unnatural sex changes due to the prevalence of chemicals used in human birth control that have made their way into waterways.

These chemicals make their way into the water supply after passing through sewage treatment plants and are part of the sewage treatment effluents dumped into waterways.

A recent EPA-funded study conducted by Baylor University researchers found pharmaceuticals in fish tissues from five major U.S. cities. Some of the drugs found in fish included a common sleep aid, an antidepressant and a drug for high blood pressure as well as many others.

The levels of these pharmaceuticals detected in the study were very low and the effects of their presence in aquatic environments are poorly understood. It’s important to remember, however, that there are no federal guidelines in terms of treating or testing wastewater for most pharmaceuticals.

Please remember, we’re talking about trace amounts of these drugs. The levels of pharmaceuticals detected in various studies are far below the levels necessary for these drugs to have any direct effect on human health. Their presence is measured in parts per billion or even parts per trillion.

Still, at least some of the chemicals we are introducing into rivers, lakes and ultimately the ocean that these drain into are having an effect, as evidenced by the sex changes male fishes undergo when exposed to certain human hormones used in birth control pills.

Ultimately, we don’t really know what we’re dumping into the environment, how long it’s staying there or what effect it may be having, if any. More frequently, we’re hearing that chemicals are showing up in all different kinds of animals, at various points in the food chain.

Aquarium Water Chemistry
Aquarists are bound to be hypersensitive about what goes into their water. We go nuts over ammonia spikes, we test our water obsessively, and we change our water periodically to keep our fishes healthy.

The chemicals I’ve been talking about really don’t pose a direct threat to you or your fishes. You’ve got to be concerned about other chemicals in your aquarium water.

Chlorine and chloramines are a perfect example. These chemicals are intentionally added to public water supplies to ensure water is clean enough to drink. They will likely have negative effects in your aquarium, however, unless you take steps to remove them.

For chlorine, in general, you can let tap water stand for a few days, possibly with an air pump or powerhead for water circulation, to allow the chlorine to dissipate. This method doesn’t work for chloramines, however, which remain in the water column much longer than chlorine. You’ll have to use a chlorine-removing water treatment product to make sure such water is safe for your fishes.

This advice just scratches the surface. Water chemistry is very complex, and aquarists should understand evaporation rates, pH, water hardness and the effects of water temperature on fishes and plants. Reef aquarists have to go even deeper by keeping track of all kinds of chemicals, their effects on aquarium inhabitants and methods for maintaining the proper levels of necessary chemicals.

Disposal of aquarium water is another big issue. Generally, aquarists need to properly dispose of water taken out of an aquarium during water changes. For freshwater aquarists this is easy, as fresh wastewater is generally great for terrestrial plants and can be used in gardens.

Marine wastewater is a different animal entirely. If not disposed of properly, it is possible marine aquarium wastewater can be harmful to the environment. Always be sure to pour your marine wastewater down a drain that leads to a sewage treatment processing facility.

If you have a septic system, be careful about pouring large amounts of marine aquarium wastewater into your septic system. The salt may kill off the beneficial bacteria you rely on for waste disposal, depending on how much water you are dumping.

Obviously, don’t pour marine aquarium wastewater on plants or directly down a drain that leads to the ocean. Both of these practices may cause damage to your plants and the environment, not to mention possibly creating vectors for invasive species to gain a foothold in an environment.

In general, aquarists are good about disposing of wastewater. Just keep an eye out for potential pollutants, and monitor your water quality to ensure you are helping the cause rather than hurting it. Make sure you do your water changes in the first place. Most importantly, remember that you should never dump aquarium water or your aquarium inhabitants into any local waterways or in any place where it might cause ecological damage.

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