Impact of Chemicals in U.S. Waterways
Concerns grow about hormone-disrupting chemicals in Wisconsin water
In America’s Dairyland, steroid hormones from livestock have been found in the snowmelt runoff from large cattle-feeding operations. In the Shenandoah River, researchers investigating recurring fish kills found something in the polluted waters had feminized 80 to 100 percent of the male smallmouth bass, causing them to produce immature eggs in their testes. And in Minnesota, three weeks after researchers put male minnows in lakes, they developed intersex characteristics.
All over the country, chemicals known to disrupt or act like hormones seem to have permeated the waters and may be harming wildlife — or people. “The more you know, the more scared you are,” said Kimberlee Wright, executive director of the Wisconsin-based non-profit law centre Midwest Environmental Advocates.
Known as endocrine disruptors, these chemicals are in soaps, plastics, industrial solvents, pesticides and herbicides, as well as human or animal medicines. Some occur naturally but hundreds are man-made and found everywhere that modern chemistry has improved people’s lives.
A United Nations report in February declared endocrine disruptors a “global threat” to wildlife and humans, particularly infants and children. Close to 800 chemicals are known or suspected to disrupt hormone function, but thousands in use have never been tested, the U.N. report said. Despite growing evidence of risks, state and federal governments have issued little guidance on how much of these suspected endocrine disruptors in our lakes, streams and groundwater, constitute danger for fish, wildlife or people. These chemicals are largely unregulated.
“We’re not a building full of bureaucrats ignorant to the problem,” said Brad Wolbert, chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ recycling and solid waste program. “It’s just that it’s a really big problem.” Dozens of pesticides have been associated with endocrine disruption. Pesticides have commonly been detected in surface waters, and in an estimated one-third of drinking water wells in Wisconsin, according to a survey by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Endocrine disruptors mess with the body’s signalling systems, which respond with exquisite sensitivity to tiny amounts of hormones like oestrogen or testosterone. Hormones regulate growth and development, stress response, metabolism and a host of other functions.
One major potential source of endocrine disruptors in the environment is Agriculture. An Iowa State University study estimated land applications of livestock manure accounts for more than 90 percent of the total estrogens in the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is concerned about potential impacts on fish.
Scientists coined the term “endocrine disruption” in 1991, at a conference in Racine, after troubling findings emerged from the Great Lakes in the 1980s. Researchers found that women who ate as few as two meals a month of PCB-contaminated Lake Michigan fish delivered smaller babies, and their children later scored worse on memory and attention-span tests. Scientific evidence has begun to link “exposure to some toxic chemicals to a range of reproductive and childhood developmental problems,” according to a 2010 report from the non-profit Pew Health Group.
Endocrine disruptors are suspected of causing declining sperm counts, infertility, obesity, genital deformities, breast cancer, prostate cancer, retarded sexual development, and impaired memory or intelligence in children. At the same time, none of the dozens of experts interviewed said Wisconsinites should stop drinking their well water or swimming in lakes. The science is not there yet, they said.
Potential sources of endocrine disruptors include wastewater treatment plants and urban, industrial or agricultural runoff. Most often, endocrine disruption in wildlife — like the Minnesota intersex minnows or the Shenandoah River bass — cannot be blamed on a single chemical because the waters contain so many different pollutants. Some endocrine disruptors are hormones, like the progesterone that University of Wisconsin researchers recently found in runoff from Wisconsin livestock operations.
DNR acknowledged in a January 2012 report that pharmaceuticals and personal care products “have been found in low but surprising quantities throughout the Great Lakes,” and warned that “these products are a cause for concern as they have been linked to several problems such as intersex fish.” The report added: “In an effort to be proactive and protective of humans and wildlife, Wisconsin should consider developing water quality standards for these pharmaceutical byproducts.” But it noted that it would need a surface water monitoring program “to determine the scale of this potential problem in the state.”
As for pesticides, the report said that with new products on the market and new toxicity data, the DNR — with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Department of Health Services — should review water quality standards for pesticides “to determine which, if any, need to be updated” to protect people and wildlife.
Wisconsin’s names algae blooms and climate change as emerging water issues. It includes a brief recommendation to look for “recently discovered contaminants” in groundwater, but does not address the issue of endocrine disruptors. Rebecca Katers says: I tried to publicize endocrine-disrupting pollution in northeast Wisconsin for many years, starting in the 1980s. Back then, scientists Theo Colburn and Peter Montague, and a few others, were already national pioneers on this topic, trying to raise the same alarms discussed in this Wisconsin Watch series. It’s wonderful to see new articles now, because these issues are still extremely important, but at the same time, it’s profoundly frustrating that so little has been done over the past 30 years to stop public exposure to well-known or strongly-suspected toxic chemicals.
She continued: Human societies seem incapable of responding to such obvious threats in rational or timely ways. In our “advanced civilization,” our news media and politicians focus all public attention on a few dramatic tragedies, such as Boston’s bombing, or Connecticut’s school shooting, which together killed 30 people and injured about 170 people. But they mention only briefly (and ineffectually) MAJOR toxic pollution problems like the ones outlined in these articles, despite the fact that toxic chemicals are widespread and much bigger threats that are likely to kill or badly injure MILLIONS of people.