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SPU’s ‘Paws-On’ Approach to Pollution Prevention

Sampson, a smart, loyal, Labrador Retriever, is more than just a Very Good Boy. He’s a highly-skilled member of Seattle Public Utilities’ Source Control and Pollution Prevention team, which protects our local water bodies by monitoring pollutants, like PCBs, in our storm drain system.

PCBs, banned by the EPA in 1979 as a hazard to human and environmental health, were historically used in electrical equipment and building material. While no longer used, they’re still present in old buildings and in the mud and sediment around industrial sites like Seattle’s Lower Duwamish Waterway.

PCBs are generally considered to be odorless, but Mike Jeffers, a SPU Source Control team member, suspected otherwise. After learning about the University of Washington’s Conservation Canines program—a program that trains dogs to help track the scat of endangered species—Jeffers and colleague Beth Schmoyer decided to find out if a detection dog’s skill could be applied to tracking down PCBs in pipes and other drainage structures along the Duwamish. They figured if they could train a dog to detect PCBs, they could spend less time and money testing samples and more time keeping PCBs out of our waterways.

“We wanted to see if a canine tracker could actually detect PCBs,” says Jeffers, “and it worked!”

As it turns out, Sampson, a pound rescue dog, is a regular Sherlock Holmes when it comes to sniffing out PCBs. Sampson can detect scents down to parts per
trillion—that’s more sensitive than the special tools SPU usually uses to identify the toxic chemicals.

“It was definitely thinking outside the box,” says Kevin Buckley, a SPU Strategic Advisor who helped obtain a grant from the Department of Ecology to fund Sampson’s first year of employment. Buckley says he’s impressed by the scientific rigor and innovative thinking that went in to making the effort a success.

In fact, Sampson’s first year was so successful that the Department of Ecology provided additional grant funding so that SPU can bring on a second dog/handler team in the coming year. If results continue to be promising, the Source Control Team will look at making these furry detectives a permanent part of SPU’s pollution control work.

Photo Credit: Jaymi Heimbuch/Conservation Canines