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Fish deformities [caused by sewage outfalls] raise alarm over European Rivers

By Bruce Thompson, For Southam Newspapers in Times Colonist September 17, 2000

LONDON. Hermaphroditic fish are appearing all over Europe and scientists are wondering if the problem is connected to similar reproductive disorders in everything from polar bears to humans.

Ongoing European Union-funded research across seven countries is revealing the feminization of freshwater male fish across the continent as a result of man-made chemicals and human sewage pumped into European rivers.

Professor Alan Pickering, director of Britain's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, says the continent-wide appearance of male fish with both testes and ova "isn't a surprise to scientists working in this area. We're just confirming that it's a real issue."

Pickering says scientists first started spotting hermaphroditic fish in UK rivers during the 1980s. Evidence at the time linked the feminization to endocrine disrupters, which are manmade chemicals disrupting or mimicking naturally occurring hormones. These chemicals are found in some plastics, detergents, pesticides, dioxins and PCBs.

The most recent research indicates that nearly all male fish in the north Yorkshire river Aire are feminized, showing characteristics associated with exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals or "gender benders." While Pickering acknowledges that feminization of male fish isn't normal, he says it still needs to be determined whether artificial feminization will be a problem for maintaining the survival of fish populations.

"Logic would seem to dictate that fewer males would mean a danger to breeding and a drop in population numbers, but that isn't necessarily the case."

For example, a roach will produce thousands of eggs luring its lifetime but only two have to survive to maintain population numbers.

The EU research has proven that the greatest amount of gender-bending goes on near the outfall pipes of sewage treatment plants.

For more than 50 years western municipalities have tried to centralize sewage collection into waste treatment plants in order to improve community health standards and the environment. One of the unforeseen problems of this centralization has turned out to be the concentrated release of endocrine disrupters out of many of Europe's treatment plants.

Greenpeace reports that since the start of the chemical industry boom in the 1950s, more than 63,000 manmade chemicals have been released into the environment, of which only a fraction have been tested for gender-bending effects. Some 50 have been identified so far as endocrine disrupters. The chemicals of interest to the EU study range from industrial detergents to treated human waste to traces of synthetic estrogen from the birth control pill that are still ending up in European rivers and European fish. Surprisingly, the sewage created by human females carries naturally occurring estrogen which is inert when excreted but is somehow reactivated in some sewage treatment systems.

Production of one of the most notorious chemicals linked to endocrine disruptions, PCBs, has been banned internationally. But other significant gender-benders, including DDT, are still used in many South American, Asian, and African countries to combat malaria.

Greenpeace reports maintain endocrine disrupters are possibly responsible for causing reproductive disorders from fish to polar bears to humans.

Dr. Richard Sharpe, of Edinburgh's Medical Research Council, studies the effects of gender-bending chemicals and reproductive disorders in mammalian males, including humans. He says the last few decades have witnessed a well documented increase in testicular cancer as well as some inconclusive reports on declining sperm counts.

"There's no evidence linking the disorders, I'm interested in with endocrine disrupters. At the same time you could make a theoretical case that they could be. You would need more studies to bridge that gulf," he says of the role endocrine disrupters play in affecting human reproductivity.

For Sharpe there simply isn't enough evidence at this point to draw conclusions about the links between gender-bending chemicals and human reproductive disorders. He says there have been too few studies of individual chemicals and almost no studies testing chemicals in the complex combinations they appear in the environment.

Sharpe says scientists know that at the heart of these mammalian reproductive disorders something is hormonally wrong but he's not yet sure what is exactly going wrong.

He's cautious about linking recent reports of hermaphrodite polar bears with endocrine disrupters, saying again that more evidence is needed to make sure these hermaphroditic bears aren't occurring because of other factors such as in- breeding. However, he points out that there is a certain logic in linking the bears problems with manmade chemicals since the bears are at the top of the food chain and eat a lot of fish.

"In, the end, I would probably come down on the side of the fence saying, yes, these chemicals are playing a role in some of the reproductive disorders we're seeing in mammals. But come back in a month and I might be pushed to the other side by another piece of data."


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