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Ingesting Bodies of Water

Saara Hannula examines the contaminated diversity of the Baltic Sea.

Saara Hannula

How does a gathering become a “happening,” that is, greater than a sum of its parts? One answer is contamination. We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others. As contamination changes world-making projects, mutual worlds – and new directions – may emerge

– Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing [1]

The body of the sea is leaky and amorphous. It resists the idea of self-containment by engaging in continuous fluid exchange with other bodies of water, and by creating a milieu where various water cycles, aquatic ecosystems, and forms of life come together. Thus, it is also prone to continuous contamination.

In the book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015), anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes about contamination as a form of collaboration and transformation through encounter. According to her, encounters destabilize existing categories while taking differences into account. This line of thought might encourage us to approach the sea as an event (or, in Tsing’s words, as a happening) that makes way for contaminated diversity, rather than as a stable entity that strives to remain the same. [2] Tsing describes contaminated diversity as a form of ”collaborative adaptation to human-disturbed ecosystems” [3]. 

The body that is currently known as the Baltic Sea has gone through several transitions and transformations since its emergence after the last ice age: as such, there is no original state to return or refer to. Due to post-glacial rebound, the closing and opening of the channels connecting the Baltic to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and the subsequent shifts in salinity, its shape, size, and consistency have changed significantly over time. At times, the water has been fresh, and at other times, it has been brackish: in its current state, it is a mixture of salty water coming from the Atlantic Ocean, freshwater brought in by the numerous rivers that flow into the basin, as well as groundwater, rainwater, and remnants of other water bodies that have entered the basin in the past. [4]

Due to the constant circulation, layering, and intermingling of water bodies, the water that currently fills the basin is diverse by nature. Each of the bodies of water that flow into the sea carries material traces of the environmental histories and biocultural practices that have shaped the landscape and the circulation of water in the Baltic region in the past decades. In result, the Baltic Sea could be seen as a fluid archive that tells stories related to land use, industrial development, and changes in people’s livelihoods: as toxins, heavy metals, chemicals, and nutrients circulate and accumulate in the body of the sea, it forms a record of every material ever used. At the same time, the accumulative and largely unknown effects of the contaminants turn the sea into a pool of life and death that is in a state of constant becoming. 

* * *

To drink a glass of water is to ingest the ghosts of bodies that haunt that water. When ”nature calls” some time later, we return to the cistern and the sea not only our antidepressants, our chemical estrogens, or our more commonplace excretions, but also the meanings that permeate those materialities: disposable culture, medicalized problem-solving, ecological disconnect. Just as the deep oceans harbor particulate records of former geological eras, water retains our more anthropomorphic secrets, even when we would rather forget. Our distant and more immediate pasts are returned to us in both trickles and floods. 

– Astrida Neimanis [5]

Some of the fresh water that flows into the Baltic Sea comes from lake Päijänne, which is currently the main source of household water in the Helsinki area. [6] The lake water enters the city through a 120-meter-long underground tunnel that was dug in the 1970s and early 1980s. The tunnel ends in the Silvola reservoir, close to the Pitkäkoski and Vanhakaupunki water treatment plants, where the water is processed before it enters the 3000-kilometer-long water supply system. [7] Existing microbes are killed with ozone, after which the water is filtered, UV disinfected, and mixed with low doses of chloramine in order to minimize microbial growth in the system. The acidity and alkaline levels are adjusted through the addition of carbon dioxide and lime water. [8]

As the chemically processed fresh water passes through households, institutions, and other facilities, parts of it are absorbed by human, animal, and plant bodies, whereas others continue their way towards the sea through the sewage system. Through its involvement in intimate encounters and bodily events such as drinking, washing, and peeing, the water incorporates new ingredients: hormones, chemicals, microplastics, microbes, and bacteria. Some of the active pharmaceutical ingredients and other contaminants are filtered out in Viikinmäki, which is the main wastewater treatment plant in the Helsinki region, but many of them remain in the water even after it is “purified”. At times – especially during heavy rainfall and when snow is melting – the sewage water mixes with rain- and stormwater and flows directly into the sea. [9]

When the sewage water enters the sea, the above-mentioned contaminants form combinations and entirely new chemical compounds, whose accumulative effects remain unknown. 10] [11] Even though these chemicals cannot be perceived by human or nonhuman sensoria, they may be detrimental or at least transformative to many human and nonhuman bodies, communities, and species alike. For example, they may cause infertility by interfering in the development and functioning of the reproductive system: according to Heather Davis, they enact a “queering of the body”, thus contributing to the emergence of queer futurities that are based on trans-species kinship rather than sexual reproduction [12]. 

Especially hormones, endocrine disruptors, and antidepressants are known to have major effects on the development and behavior of organisms, even in low doses: as such, they play a key role in the evolution and extinction of aquatic life. According to a pharmaceutical study conducted in 2020, the amount of oxazepam and temazepam found in Finnish seawater samples is 12 to 28 times as big as in the ones collected in other countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Oxazepam is a benzodiazepine that is commonly used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, whereas temazepam is used in the treatment of severe insomnia. [12]

Fig. 1. The muddy flood waters of Vantaa river mix with the clear waters of the Baltic Sea on the coasts of Helsinki in April 2022. Image: EU, Copernicus Sentinel Images Processed by ESA. [13]

* * *

While contamination may foster diversity and transformation, it may also lead to the proliferation of certain kinds of bodies at the expense of others. In the case of the Baltic Sea, contamination has caused extensive eutrophication, oxygen depletion, and toxic bioaccumulation, thus contributing to the ongoing disappearance of bodies, species, and entire ecosystems. The accumulation of minerals and nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, has led to the overgrowth of phytoplanktons, bacteria, and algal blooms at the expense of fish and other marine animal populations, many of which have become extinct due to the lack of oxygen. At the same time, marine organisms are also exposed to toxins such as mercury, dioxin, bromine, lead, cadmium, and tin [15], which makes them even more vulnerable to changes in their living environment. 

As the body of the sea continues to change, it also requires constant adaptation from the organisms that inhabit it. Some of them adapt to the changing circumstances through metabolization, mutation, and gene exchange, whereas others die off in the face of change. The sheer range of these bodily responses reveals the contradictions that emerge when thinking with contamination: on the one hand, life continues to evolve in unexpected ways, and on the other, it is inevitably and irreversibly lost. The notions of contaminated diversity and queer futurity bring both of these hands together: they propose ways of thinking, where death does not necessarily equal the end of life, even if it may change the way life is lived and thought of.

* * *

As a short epilogue, I would like to introduce a speculative art project by artist Pinar Yoldas. The project, titled Ecosystem of Excess (2014), imagines life forms that might evolve in anthropogenic ocean environments, such as the Plastisphere. It introduces a series of speculative organs and organisms capable of digesting the debris that fills the oceans, including an e-plasticeptor, a petrogestative system, a petronephros, and a stomaximus. [16] While looking at the images of these imaginary organs below, I will take a moment to sense into my own digestive system and imagine it in the form that it is in today, after having ingested and digested countless bodies of water during the past four decades.

Fig. 2–3. Two imaginary digestive systems for metabolizing plastics. [18]


[1] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tsing, “Contaminated Diversity”, 95–97.

[4] Kotilainen, ”Kuinka Itämeri on kehittynyt.”

[5] Neimanis, ”Hydrofeminism”, 98.

[6] Before the Päijänne tunnel was finished in 1982, the Helsinki residents’ drinking water came from Vantaanjoki, which is the largest body of fresh water in the Helsinki area. In the 20th century, the rapidly growing urbanization and industrialization caused the river to become heavily polluted. The rapids were dammed, wastewater was led directly into the river, many of the fish species disappeared, and the surface of the river became filled with algae. According to the chemists studying the water quality in the 1960s and 70s, the smell of the river ranged from ammonium and oil to mold and rotten fish, and the drinking water tasted bad. Since then, the situation has improved somewhat: some of the dams have been demolished, and the wastewater runs through water treatment plants before it enters the river and the sea. Kangasluoma, “Kovan kohtalon joki.”

[7] HSY, ”Pääkaupunkiseudun Vesi ja Päijännetunneli.”

[8] Vesilaitosyhdistys, ”HSY:n Pitkäkoskesta Suomen suurin talousvettä tuottava laitos.” 

[9] Tuhkanen, ”Helsingissä johdetaan edelleen jätevesiä puhdistamattomina mereen – palautetta vessapapereista tai pökäleistä ei ole tullut.”

[10] Laurimo, ”Lääkejäämät kiertävät vesistössä.”

[11] Ympäristöhallinto, ”Tehokkailla jäteveden puhdistusmenetelmillä voidaan vähentää lääkepäästöjä ympäristöön.”

[12] According to Davis, “reproductive futurism organizes political discourse and the social imaginary as the projected fantasy of continuance”, whereas queer non-reproductivity and kinship might constitute “the beginnings of a queering of social reproduction that would allow a different kind of narration to enter into the massive extinctions that we are currently witnessing, one that is less focused on individual reproductive capacity and the love and care that may accompany that, toward a love and care that extends outward, beyond one’s immediate biological family”. Davis, “Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures”, 237–239.

[13] Äystö et al, “Lääkeaineiden esiintyminen ja riskit Vantaanjoen vesistössä.”

[14] Saarilahti, “Satelliitti tarkensi Helsinkiin kirkkaan päivän kriittisellä hetkellä.” Despite the measures that have been taken to protect and preserve the Vantaanjoki river in the past decades, the water is far from being “pure”. Before the river reaches the sea, it absorbs toxins and nutrients from the urban, industrial, and agricultural landscapes surrounding the riverbanks. Their amount varies depending on the weather and the amount of water that flows in the river: during rainy years, the load is significantly bigger. When snow is melting and the river is flooding in the spring, the silt, nutrients, and toxins mix with the sea water in the coastal areas of Helsinki, causing the water to appear muddy.  

[15] According to Masco, fallout is “the unacknowledged-until-lived crisis that is built into the infrastructure of a system, program, or process”: a concrete example might be the radioactive fallout that takes place after a nuclear disaster. Masco, “The Age of Fallout”, 138.

[16] Itämeri nyt, ”Haitalliset aineet Itämerellä.” 

[17] Yoldas, Ecosystem of Excess.

[18] Ibid.


Davis, Heather. “Toxic Progeny: The Plastisphere and Other Queer Futures.” philoSOPHIA, Volume 5, Number 2 (2015): 231-250.

Helsingin seudun ympäristöpalvelut. ”Pääkaupunkiseudun Vesi ja Päijännetunneli.” Accessed December 9, 2022. https://www.hsy.fi/vesi-ja-viemarit/paakaupunkiseudun-vesi-oy/

Itämeri nyt. ”Haitalliset aineet Itämerellä.” Accessed December 9, 2022. https://www.ostersjon.fi/fi-FI/Luonto_ja_sen_muutos/Itameren_tila/Haitalliset_aineet

Kangasluoma, Emilia. ”Kovan kohtalon joki.” Helsingin sanomat, December 1, 2021. https://www.hs.fi/kaupunki/vantaa/art-2000008276171.html

Kotilainen, Aarno. ”Kuinka Itämeri on kehittynyt.” Accessed December 9, 2022. https://www.itameri.fi/fi-FI/Luonto_ja_sen_muutos/Ainutlaatuinen_Itameri/Kuinka_Itameri_on_kehittynyt

Laurimo, Jukka. ”Lääkejäämät kiertävät vesistössä”, Kaleva, May 5, 2008. https://www.kaleva.fi/laakejaamat-kiertavat-vesistossa/2309564

Masco, Joseph. “The Age of Fallout.” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 2015.

Neimanis Astrida. ”Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water”, in Undutiful Daughters: Mobilizing Future Concepts, Bodies and Subjectivities in Feminist Thought and Practice, eds. Henriette Gunkel, Chrysanthi Nigianni and Fanny Söderbäck. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Saarilahti, Emilia. “Satelliitti tarkensi Helsinkiin kirkkaan päivän kriittisellä hetkellä: Tuore ilmakuva näyttää kaupungin rannat aivan uudessa valossa.” Helsingin sanomat, April 26, 2022. https://www.hs.fi/kaupunki/helsinki/art-2000008772410.html

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Tsing, Anna. “Contaminated Diversity in ‘Slow Disturbance’: Potential Collaborators for a Liveable Earth,” In: “Why Do We Value Diversity? Biocultural Diversity in a Global Context,” edited by Gary Martin, Diana Mincyte, and Ursula Münster, RCC Perspectives 2012, no. 9

Tuhkanen, Ari. ”Helsingissä johdetaan edelleen jätevesiä puhdistamattomina mereen – palautetta vessapapereista tai pökäleistä ei ole tullut.” YLE May 28, 2018. https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-10226145

Vesilaitosyhdistys, ”HSY:n Pitkäkoskesta Suomen suurin talousvettä tuottava laitos.” Accessed December 9, 2022. https://www.vvy.fi/ajankohtaista/uutiset/hsy-n-pitkakoskesta-suomen-suurin-talousvetta-tuottava-laitos/

Ympäristöhallinto, ”Tehokkailla jäteveden puhdistusmenetelmillä voidaan vähentää lääkepäästöjä ympäristöön.” Accessed December 9, 2022.


Yoldas, Pinar. Ecosystem of Excess. Accessed December 14, 2022. https://pinaryoldas.info/Ecosystem-of-Excess-2014

Äystö, Junttila, Siimes, Perkola. “Lääkeaineiden esiintyminen ja riskit Vantaanjoen vesistössä”. DOSIS No. 3 (2020): 242–253. Suomen farmasialiitto ry.

Ecological Thinking

This is the course blog for K-JI-11-23A – Ecological Thinking. In 2023-24, we explore “Vertical Ecologies” by visual arts, film and performance. The course is co-organized by Giovanna Esposito Yussif and Samir Bhowmik. Previously, in 2022-23, we organized a year-long collaborative research studio with Aarhus University, DK, Research Pavilion 2023 and Helsinki Biennial 2023 on the themes of environmental data, sensing and contamination.

Header image credit: Abelardo Gil-Fournier and Jussi Parikka / Seed, Image, Ground (2020)- With permission from the authors.

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