Portland pee fiasco proves our lack of science knowledge

A couple of knuckleheads tinkled into a reservoir that supplies Portland, Ore., so officials last week announced they’re going to drain 38 million gallons of water. You can’t have human urine in the water supply.

What does this tell us?

That Americans have a “tenuous grasp of science,” Ars Technica writes today.

A half-liter of urine dumped in a 143 million-liter reservoir would get a urea concentration of about 3 parts per billion, according to Slate. (We calculated it would be a 50 nanoMolar solution.) Meanwhile, the EPA allows concentrations of arsenic in drinking water up to 10 ppb. Salt water has a salt concentration of around 35,000,000 parts per billion, or 600 milliMolar.

In an interview with Vocativ, the teenager in question, Dallas Swonger, denied urinating in the reservoir at all, stating he actually hit a wall instead. “I leaned up against the wall and pissed on it,” Swonger said. Swonger also contested the cleanliness of the reservoir prior to his actions: “I’ve seen dead birds in there. During the summer time I’ve see hella dead animals in there,” Swonger told Vocativ. In 2011, Shaff told the Mercury that the reservoir is not shut down for nature’s transgressions. “If we did that, we’d be shutting it off all the time. We fish out animals or things that have blown in all the time,” Shaff said.

Or maybe people aren’t that stupid about the things that are in the water. An unscientific poll by the Portland Oregonian found 90 percent didn’t think draining an entire reservoir was a good idea.

Last week, Slate calculated the ne’er do well would have had to pee in the water more than 3,000 more times to come close to the EPA level for nitrates in drinking water.