By Grant Lafleche
Science News Magazine
Monday, June 16, 2003
Local News - It's done every day, unconsciously like breathing or blinking, in every one of the millions of homes of the sprawling Great Lakes communities. Yet each time a person in one of those homes flushes a toilet they unwittingly contribute to the creation of a chemical cocktail capable of altering the sex of fish or building super-bug breeding grounds.
This alchemist's brew -- a mixture of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, synthetic hormones and the chemical remains of perfume and a host of other drug store products -- has been pouring out of sewers into the lakes for years largely unnoticed.
Three years ago, biologist Chris Metcalfe of Trent University started to take notice, testing the waters near sewage outflows in Hamilton Harbour on Lake Ontario and in the Detroit River where fish like to hunt for food.
"The sewage puts nutrients in the water which feed the micro-organisms the little fish eat," says Rob McIntosh, president of the St. Catharines Game and Fish Association. "So it's like McDonald's for the bigger fish. It's fast food."
The compounds swirling about those fish swimming in the warm effluent set off alarm bells for Metcalfe. Most substances were escaping into the water in low concentrations and were unable to chemically hang together for long. But there were enough remaining intact after travelling far from the sewage pipe, up to 500 metres in some cases, to warrant a closer look. These chemicals have the potential do to serious harm, Metcalfe says. And their numbers are growing.
"It's not going to get any better and you cannot just sit back and hope that it's going to get better," says Metcalfe, one of only a few North American researchers studying the effect these chemicals have on the already strained ecosystem of the Great Lakes. "I think Health Canada and Environment Canada have to start considering this."
According to IMS Health, an American firm that tracks the pharmaceutical industry, $204-billion (US) of prescription and non-prescription drugs were sold in 2002 in North America. Canadians spent more than $7 billion on everything from painkillers to anti-depressants and birth control pills.
Sales grow from three to six per cent each year and by 2005 IMS Health is predicting the pharmaceutical industry in Canada and the U.S. will have more than $270 billion in sales. In Canada, sales of drugs is expected to grow to $10 billion by then.
"The rate of sales will likely accelerate as home care increases and the baby boomers get older and require more medications," Metcalfe says. Consider, he says, the human body metabolizes only 30 to 70 per cent of drugs, with the rest being flushed and combined with the perfumes, shampoos, bug repellents and other common non-medical products that are washed down the drain in sinks and showers.
"So there are a couple of areas here where you could have impacts. If you have discharge into surface water, that could impact aquatic organisms," he says. "If there is movement of these compounds into drinking water there is the potential for health effects on humans."
His research is focusing on a handful of compounds that remain stable in the lakes. He said there is some evidence mirco-organisms in the lakes are building up resistance to drugs because of the antibiotics released from sewage systems. "You could end up with a whole suite of mirco-organisms that are resistant to treatment. That could have an impact on human health."
Metcalfe admits there is a massive information gap about the long-term effect of these chemicals on aquatic life and on people. More studies are needed before any judgment can be made. Synthetic musks found in perfumes tend to accumulate in the tissues of fish. There isn't any data to show if a person who eats that fish comes to harm or not.
"There is very little toxicity data," he said. "We know they are not directly toxic. However, there might be some long-term, sub-acute effects." What if a fish becomes packed with prescription drugs? What happens to the person who eats that fish?
"There is a concern that you could be mixing drugs," he said. "You'll notice that when you get prescription medication it will say 'Do not take this medication with Aspirin,' for example. Is that a bad thing? The truth is, we just don't know."
Research at the University of Ottawa shows that one of the
substances Metcalfe has found -- a cholesterol-lowering agent
called gemfibrozil -- can
seriously disrupt the reproductive cycle of fish.When biologist Thomas Moon exposed gold fish, a genetic relative to many lake fish, to gemfibrozil the cholesterol levels in the fish fell to the point where their testosterone production plummeted.
"These chemicals can have serious effects very quickly," says Moon. "There are cases on the Atlantic coast where a fish would swim by a sewage pipe, get blasted with something and its entire reproductive system gets messed up."
The problem isn't just one of chemistry and biology, says Ian Brindle, dean of the mathematics and science department at Brock University in St. Catharines. Most of the products Metcalfe is finding were created with noblest intentions. But every creation comes with "domains of ignorance," he says, that often lead to unintended consequences.
"My favorite example is refrigerants," says Brindle. "The fellow who designed these things would never have expected them to punch a hole in the ozone layer, but they did."Substances like the synthetic estrogen found in birth control pills are designed to remain stable so they can be effective for the women who use them, he says. But that same chemical stability also means the synthetic estrogen won't break down quickly in the environment and contributes to the feminization of male fish.
Brindle says a new movement in chemistry -- called green chemistry -- is attempting to design compounds that can do the necessary job, but that more readily break down. Metcalfe says in the meantime, governments must seriously look at how to cope with drugs in the world's largest fresh water supply because the problem is only going to get worse.
In Europe, where studies have been going on for years, regulations have been developed to prevent these drugs from getting into the water. "They have come around to the 'So what?' question," Metcalfe says.
"Now they are in the regulatory phase where they have to come up with better sewage filtration systems. They are designing technology specific to getting rid of these compounds." While the technology to filter out the drugs isn't used yet in Canada, Metcalfe said there are steps the federal government can take, particularly with synthetic musks.
According to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, any chemical that shows the potential to accumulate in the tissues of animals is a candidate for regulation."You don't even have to show that it is toxic." he said. "If you apply that to the synthetic musks, it's pretty clear cut. It is cause to begin to look at regulation on that."
Wednesday, June 4, 2003
Birth control may be harming state's salmon
Synthetic estrogen in water seems to affect reproduction
By LISA STIFFLER
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER<
Birth-control pills can curb the reproduction of more than just the women taking them. Western Washington scientists have found that synthetic estrogen -- a common ingredient in oral contraceptives -- can drastically reduce the fertility of male rainbow trout. The man-made compounds are showing up in waterways around the nation -- pumped into rivers, lakes and Puget Sound with water from sewage-treatment plants. And they're being found at levels that can harm fish, possibly even this region's struggling salmon populations. "It is disturbing in the extreme," said Kaitlin Lovell, salmon-policy coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Portland.
The research by scientists at the Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim is unique for its focus on trout, which is related to salmon, and for looking at reproductive effects on adult fish rather than juveniles. How fish are affected by such chemicals in the wild remains unclear. "It's something we're concerned about," said Irvin Schultz, a senior research scientist at the lab.
In the experiment, adult trout in caged pens were exposed to ethynylestradiol, a synthetic estrogen. After two months of exposure, the fish were spawned with a healthy female. Researchers discovered that the exposed trout were half as fertile as fish kept in clean water. The research by the government-funded lab is outlined in this month's issue of the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
The findings are likely to fuel concerns about the
environmental effects of chemicals that aren't being filtered
out by sewage plants, including pharmaceuticals and pesticides
that can mimic hormones.
In frogs, river otters and fish, scientists are "finding the presence of female hormones making the male species less male," said Doug Myers, wetlands and habitat specialist for the Puget Sound Action Team, the government agency coordinating restoration of the Sound.
There are no standards for how much synthetic estrogen and other hormones can be released in sewage and wastewater, and treatment plants generally do not monitor for it.
The Environmental Protection Agency is studying which of these compounds have harmful effects. Then the next step will be testing for their presence in waste water. New regulations could follow. Although trout don't have the ability to rid themselves of the synthetic hormones, Schultz doesn't think it poses a serious threat to people eating the fish because the levels in the environment are low.
There are some concerns about wastewater that is being recycled back into the environment, particularly in desert areas, where it might mix with groundwater that could be used for drinking. An official with King County said there is little cause for concern about human risks locally.
New sewage-treatment facilities are looking into special membranes that will help pull some of these contaminants out, said John Smyth, an official with King County's technology-assessment program. It's currently being considered for the planned Brightwater treatment plant that will serve King and Snohomish counties.
"Agencies like us all over the country are trying to figure out ways to tackle this thing," Smyth said. The researchers in Sequim tested the effects of synthetic estrogen at three different levels. The scientists were surprised that even the lowest level -- 80 times lower than levels measured in the wild -- had an effect on fertility.
The scientists would like to do more tests to identify the smallest concentrations that can harm fish. They were unable to figure out how the estrogen was causing the reduction in fertility. It appears not to affect the swimming ability of sperm.
With so many unanswered questions about what compounds are getting into the environment, their effects and how to get them out of the wastewater, environmentalists and scientists are concerned. Said Trout Unlimited's Lovell, "If anything, these problems are only going to get worse before they get better."
New York Post
Women taking birth-control pills may be drastically reducing the fertility of male rainbow trout and other fish, according to scientists in western Washington state. Their research indicates that synthetic estrogen, a common ingredient inoral contraceptives, is showing up in rivers, lakes and other waterways around the nation - after being pumped into the water from sewage-treatment plants.
Marsha Kranes, Wire Services
Canada is concerned
over the fact that birth-control pills (either
dumped into toilets or excreted through urine) has caused
the feminization of fish. [This is decreasing fish
fertility and affects the human food chain.] Chronicle
Herald 2014 Oct 13