Troubled Waters

Hudson River

ScienCentral was among the first news organizations to report on the presence of biologically active pharmaceuticals in lakes and streams.

With 7 billion plus people and all our pets and farm animals, our waterways receive the byproducts of trillions of doses of drugs every year. Many of these drugs are known to have effects on fish and wildlife. In 1996, Congress directed the EPA to study and track endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals or hazardous materials which can have adverse effects on the endocrine systems of animals and humans. The EPA program, now called the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) sponsored research. With increasingly sensitive tests for endocrine disruptors, scientists found several types in lakes and streams. Scientists developed tests for different forms of estrogen, and found levels that were able to feminize male fish. Both the body’s natural estrogen, ethynyl estradiol, and birth control pill estrogen, 17 beta estradiol, are present in the water in habitats around the world.

We rely on waste-treatment plants to get rid of harmful substances before they reach the environment. However, these plants are designed to remove particles and not water soluble drugs. Estrogen dissolves well in water and thus passes right through waste water filters.This estrogen-tainted water moves into the environment where wildlife ingest it in streams, rivers, and lakes.

Pesticides and other carcinogenic compounds are considered dangerous in the parts-per-billion range. University of California scientist Dr. David Sedlak and other researchers found that estrogen is even more potent. Estrogen can make male fish develop more like females at doses in the parts per trillion range, a level found now in many lakes and streams around the world. Sedlak and his colleagues have been studying estrogens and waste water for years.

Fish are not the only ones drinking estrogen excreted by people. Most drinking water treatment plants do not look for or remove compounds like estrogen. Could low-levels of pharmaceutical drugs in the drinking water effect us?

The answer is that we do not know yet, though scientists are actively trying to figure it out. One 2010 study of US adults and children says no – you drink far more estrogen in milk than in water. Other studies point out that birth control pills account for only 1% of the estrogen in the water – the rest comes from agricultural, industrial, and yes, human sources. Here are some examples of recent studies and workshops:

Study of estrogens associated with a beef farm (http://www.epa.gov/ncer/publications/workshop/pdf/sedlak_california82007.pdf)

How estrogens from waste water percolate through a wetland (The Fate of Estrogenic Hormones in an Engineered Treatment Wetland with Dense Macrophytes, Gray and Sedlak, Water Environ. Res., 77, 24 (2005).

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Transcript of ScienCentral video report from 1999:

VOICE OVER:
(Bathroom scenes: flushing toilet, swirling water, closing women’s rest-room door)

EVERY TIME YOU USE THE BATHROOM, YOU FLUSH AWAY ACTIVE DRUGS YOU HAVE TAKEN. THE WATER MAKES ITS WAY TO SEWAGE TREATMENT PLANTS WHERE IT’S TREATED AND SENT BACK INTO RIVERS AND STREAMS. DR. DAVID SEDLAK OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT BERKELEY IS CONCERNED THAT THE DRUGS WE THOUGHT WE WERE DONE WITH MAY BE FINDING THEIR WAY BACK INTO OUR DRINKING WATER.

(David Sedlak collecting water sample from a stream)

SOUND BITE:
#David Sedlak
#University of California at Berkeley

So we’ve been looking for ethynyl estradiol the active ingredient in birth control pills, and 17 beta estradiol, the natural form of estrogen that’s excreted all the time, and these compounds which are present in the bloodstream get excreted in the urine and end up in waste water treatment plants, and what we’ve been finding is that they make it through the treatment plants without being removed at all.

VOICE OVER
(Laboratory, Computer screen with diagram)

SEDLAK HAS FOUND VERY LOW LEVELS OF ESTROGENS IN RIVERS AND STREAMS IN CALIFORNIA. THAT’S WORRISOME, HE SAYS, BECAUSE WHEN LABORATORY FISH ARE EXPOSED TO THESE SAME LOW HORMONE LEVELS IN PARTS PER TRILLION, THE FISH DEVELOP ABNORMAL TRAITS

SOUND BITE:
#David Sedlak
#University of California at Berkeley

The male fish start exhibiting female characteristics. You would think that these low concentrations of hormones might not have an effect, but in reality, people are finding that part per trillion levels of hormones are having reproductive effects on fish.

VOICE OVER:
(Laboratory: Scientist with dropper)
IF HORMONES ARE FINDING THEIR WAY INTO STREAMS AND AFFECTING FISH, ARE THEY ALSO MAKING THEIR WAY BACK INTO OUR DRINKING WATER AND AFFECTING US?

SOUND BITE:
#David Sedlak
#University of California at Berkeley

If you’re at the end of a large river that has a lot of cities upstream like the Colorado river or the Mississippi river that water has probably passed through a waste water treatment plant before it gets to your drinking water plant.

VOICE OVER:
(Laboratory beakers)
SEDLAK HAS DEVELOPED A SENSITIVE TEST TO DETECT VERY LOW LEVELS OF BIRTH CONTROL PILLS IN WATER. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENTISTS LIKE CHUCK NOSS INTEND TO SPEND OVER A MILLION DOLLARS TO DETERMINE THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THESE DRUGS AND THEIR IMPACT ON WILDLIFE AND TO BEGIN TO ANSWER THE QUESTION OF WHETHER DRUGS IN THE ENVIRONMENT POSE ANY THREAT TO PEOPLE.

SOUND BITE:
#Chuck Noss
#Deputy Director
#The Water Environment Research Foundation

Just because a compound is measured and found to be present, we really cant jump to the conclusion that it’s harmful. We have to demonstrate that it’s causing some adverse effect.

SOUND BITE:
#David Sedlak
#University of California at Berkeley

Whether humans are affected by being exposed to pharmaceutical compounds at a fraction of the
prescribed dose is unknown. That is, the jury’s out. We still don’t know if these compounds are going to cause health effects.

VOICE OVER:
(Collecting water sample from stream)
NOW THAT SCIENTISTS CAN TEST FOR ESTROGENS IN THE WATER, THEY HELP TO IDENTIFY WHICH STREAMS HAVE THE HIGHEST LEVELS, AND WHAT EFFECTS THESE HUMAN HORMONES MAY HAVE ON WILDLIFE.

2 Comments

  • Reply November 18, 2013

    Eva ( Ria)

    This site was alot more helpful than most sites i’ve visited but i feel like its still missing information. What can clean out the estogen in water? How can it? What riviers spacifically have much of these chemicals or all riviers.? Why is it there.

    • Reply January 2, 2014

      Eliene Augenbraun

      THere are organic filters, but they are expensive and impractical for large scale systems, especially systems that must serve large numbers of people. One idea is to use biofilters, either hormone-eating bacteria, or enzymes derived from bacteria or fungi. Here is an example that might turn out to be workable. http://phys.org/news/2012-06-estrogen.html. At home, fresh carbon filters and constantly flushing reverse osmosis filters can remove estrogen and many other pollutants. But home filters are usually ineffective because home users tend to keep the filters too long, or the water contains too many particulates.

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