Hormone-mimickers widespread in Great Lakes region wastewater, waterways and fish


By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

Larry Barber spent ten years testing water and fish in the Great Lakes region. But he wasn’t looking for the pollutants everyone’s heard of.

A sewer rehabilitation project in Buena Vista, Michigan. Even modern water treatment and sewerage systems cannot stop all alkyphenolic compounds.

Mercury … PCBs … these are still problems. But there’s a lesser-known class of contaminants, which have insidious and concerning health impacts on aquatic creatures.

Barber, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was looking for, and found, hormone-disrupting compounds – called alkylphenols – making it through wastewater treatment plants andcontaminating rivers and fish in the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi River regions.

The compounds pervade the Great Lakes basin waterways that receive wastewater treatment plant effluent.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a large urban wastewater plant, a mid-size city wastewater plant or individual septic tanks,” Barber said. “These chemicals are present.”

Wastewater treatment plants were not originally designed to handle these compounds, widely used both commercially and residentially in products such as detergents, cleaning products and adhesives. Operators are scrambling to keep up with the hormone-mimickers gushing into their plants.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a large urban wastewater plant, a mid-size city wastewater plant or individual septic tanks. These chemicals are present.”-Larry Barber, USGSMeanwhile, scientists fear the biologically active contaminants and their metabolites may alter the hormones of fish and other aquatic creatures, leading to reproductive, behavioral and developmental problems.

“In terms of effects, these alkylphenols are just one subset of compounds that add up to produce adverse effects,” said Alan Vajda, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Colorado. “A little alkylphenol, a little estrogenic birth control … they all add up.”

Nearly ubiquitous

From 1999 to 2009 Barber and colleagues looked for nine compounds and their metabolites, many of which are known to disrupt the endocrine system, in the effluent from wastewater treatment plants in Duluth and St. Paul, Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and Akron, Ohio. They found all nine compounds in every plant’s effluent.

Over the study timeframe the amount discharged was fairly constant, Barber said.

US Army Corps of Engineers
Aerial view of Stickney Wastewater Treatment Plant, operated by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Cicero, Illinois.

This isn’t the first time researchers have found the compounds in the Great Lakes. In 2007 Environment Canada reported that the compounds were in sediment of a Great Lakes coastal wetland in Ontario and were accumulating in the tissue of local invertebrates.

Another Canadian study from 2009 tested 28 sites in lakes Erie, Huron and Ontario, and found alkylphenols distributed widely in sediments in the lower Great Lakes, with concentrations higher in sediments near larger cities.

Alkyphenols are “nearly ubiquitous,” Vajda said. “There are so many sources of these compounds in consumer products and in industrial uses and agriculture.”

It’s not always the parent compound that researchers are looking for. The compounds are partially broken down when they go through wastewater treatment plants.

However, they break down into metabolites that persist and still exhibit endocrine disrupting properties.

“They go down the drain, through the sewers, through the wastewater treatment plant, back into stream, and many are converted into more biologically active forms than what they started as,” Barber said.

Estrogenic impacts to fish

Alkyphenols disrupt endocrine systems, acting estrogenic in fish, birds and mammals.

Estrogenic compounds act through the estrogen receptor – and the common health impact people think of is reproduction, Vajda said. “But the roles much more diverse than that – estrogens are important to the brain, metabolism, cardiovascular health,” he said.

Barber and colleagues tested some fish in the Great Lakes region for indications of endocrine disruption. They found that a protein – called plasma vitellogenin, which is predominantly in female fish – was mostly reduced in female fish and present in males.

Larry Barber, USGS

Responses from both sexes are indicative of endocrine disruption, Barber said.

“A lot of endocrine disruption is creating imbalances in these biological feedback systems. After exposure, females’ machinery will kind of shut down since it’s estrogen driven,” Barber said. “Male fish exposed to estrogen will produce this protein in their blood.”

When asked to comment on Barber’s findings, Tara Johnson, a spokesperson with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said via email: “None of the actual results are particularly remarkable or unexpected based on past studies of this type with alkylphenols.”

Scientists have linked alkyphenols to a number of health impacts in fish.

Most of the research has been from laboratory studies, said Reynaldo Patiño, a USGS scientist and leader of the Texas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

“Studies suggest behavior problems, impaired reproduction, development of immune system, disease resistance,” Patiño said. “These are all important functions.”

For example, Barber, Vajda and colleagues in 2010 found that minnows exposed to hormone- and alkylphenol-contaminated wastewater effluent from Boulder, Colorado, were demasculinized within 14 days.

During the research period, Boulder water officials took steps to limit alkyphenols prompting a “dramatic decrease in the compounds showing up in effluent,” Vajda said.

“In terms of effects, these alkylphenols are just one subset of compounds that add up to produce adverse effects. A little alkylphenol, a little estrogenic birth control … they all add up.”-Alan Vajda, University of Colorado“And with it, we saw a dramatic decrease in health impacts in fish,” he said, adding that this relationship suggested the alkyphenols were largely to blame for initial demasculinization.

Michigan researchers found that crayfish had severe developmental problems when exposed and concluded that the compounds pose a “serious risk to future crayfish populations and consequently food webs.”

In trout, four common alkylphenols stimulate gene expression and the growth of breast cancer cell lines, according to research from the UK’s Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Vajda said that all of these studies are relevant for the Great Lakes fish since endocrine disrupting compounds should act similarly across fish species. He added it’s hard to pin any specific health impacts on any group of compounds since fish are exposed to a mixture of so many.

The ultimate concern is that compounds could affect fish populations. This, too, would be quite difficult to pin down, Patiño said, but it’s not a stretch to think there could be population level impacts.

“Wastewater effluent impacts individual fish. It’s not unreasonable to think if individuals are affected, including these reproductive endpoints, to expand that and project that populations are likely to be affected,” Patiño said.

Rona Proudfoot/flickr
Alkyphenol-contaminated fish and water are potential sources of estrogens for people.

All exposures count

It’s difficult to quantify the risk alkyphenolic-contaminated fish are to humans, said Dr. Ana Soto, a Tufts University professor and biologist, adding that what and how many fish eaten would determine exposure.

However, both contaminated fish and water represent yet another route of estrogen exposure for people.

“We’re already affected by estrogens like BPA, and we know the effects are additive,” Soto said. “In a nutshell, I can’t tell you how much endocrine disruption [in people] will increase from eating the fish in the river. But I can say there is potential, and all exposures count.”

“And we already have estrogens, now there are potentially more provided to the body from the water … and fish.”

Stopping them at the source

Alkylphenols are widespread in wastewater effluent because wastewater treatment plants simply were not designed to handle such compounds.

“The basic concept of plants was conceptualized 70 or 80 years ago when someone said ‘hey could we take natural biodegradation process in the environment, and speed it up,” said Chris Hornback, senior director of regulatory affairs with the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA).

“These plants were designed to get the stuff when you think of sewage out of water, get it cleaned and return it to environment, “ he said. “Nothing in the realm of our imagination when these processes were first conceptualized envisioned triclosan, estrogen from birth control pills, or alkyphenolics.”

There is some research into bolstering removal rates of such compounds. Hornback said that reverse osmosis, which cleans water by pushing it through membranes, seems to work best at removing emerging contaminants like alkyphenols. However, reverse osmosis is prohibitively expensive for most plants.

Other researchers have had some success at slowing down the sludge retention time, which keeps the wastewater in the portion of the treatment process where organisms are consuming organic matter. A longer holding period seems to remove more contaminants such as alkyphenols. But that’s not without problems either, Hornback said.

Brian Bienkowski
Experts say if compounds have environmental impacts, they shouldn’t go into sewers in the first place.

“Slowing everything down really impacts the overall treatment process, and changes how much capacity you can put through. There isn’t a treatment technology you can slap on and say ‘remove contaminant X or Y,” he said.

Another option to bolster removal is activated carbon filters, said Larry Rogacki, district general manager of support services at Minnesota’s Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, which operates the wastewater treatment plants for the St. Paul, Minneapolis region.

But it, too, would be “extremely expensive,” Rogacki said. “We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.” Rather than make such an investment, Rogacki said it makes much more sense to keep these compounds out of the sanitary system in the first place.

“If alkyphenolic compounds are causing problems in the environment, we should be working to keep them out of the sewer,” Hornback said. “The sewer is not a trash can.”

“If alkyphenolic compounds are causing problems in the environment, we should be working to keep them out of the sewer.”-Chris Hornback, NACWA

City officials at Boulder, Colorado, for example, worked with Barber and others to monitor local waterways for alkyphenols and then reach out to industries near high concentrations to educate them about potential impacts and alternative options.

Hornback said the major concern is that the EPA approves compounds and then, after environmental impacts are confirmed, will force wastewater treatments plants to deal with them

The EPA’s Johnson said the agency does not have any human or aquatic water quality standards for any of the chemicals that Barber and colleagues monitored.

Nor are there “imminent plans to develop” any standards, she added.

But voluntary reductions in chemicals can reduce their presence in the environment, Barber said.

“It’s good to get the word out. If people realize ‘Oh, I’m using products that are having an unsavory environmental impact’, and realize they have alternatives, they’ll usually turn to the alternatives.”

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author’s name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN’s version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Toys from the Seventies and Eighties could be poisoning your children


Nostalgia can be dangerous! Before passing on old toys to your children, consider new research that has found contaminants like arsenic, lead and cadmium in plastic toys from decades ago.

Read More.


Take action for safer chemicals


The San Francisco Chronicle recently discovered that the new bill intended to regulate the chemical industry was written by… the chemical industry.

That’s right. The American Chemistry Council, the leading trade organization and lobbying arm of the chemical industry, has left its fingerprints all over the very legislation that is supposed to regulate it.

Click here to take action right away and call for REAL toxics reform.

It would almost be laughable if there were not so much at stake – but this could not be more serious, Friend. This bill would fail to ensure that chemicals are safe, fail to set meaningful deadlines for safety reviews, fail to provide the Environmental Protection Agency with adequate resources and deny states the ability to enforce their own laws to protect public health and the environment.

Earlier this week I testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and presented the facts in opposition to this reprehensible bill. Now it’s your turn to speak up, too.

Click here to stand with EWG right now: Tell President Obama and your senators to reject the chemical industry’s bogus bill and support REAL reform!

If we don’t act quick, the first major, comprehensive environmental protection bill to emerge from Congress in almost a generation will be one that originated in the chemical industry – the very industry the bill purports to regulate.

We need to do everything we can to make sure that Congress enacts real chemical safety reform – not a bill blatantly written to protect the profits of the chemical industry. It’s time to shut down the bill written by the chemical industry and to protect the health of the American people!

Please speak up right now and tell President Obama and your senators that we need real chemical reform that protects the American people, not the chemical industry.

Ohio Fracking Protest

No Fracking In Ohio Parks


In a surprising move for a polarized Ohio legislature controlled by far-right Republicans cozy with fossil fuel interests, its House Energy and Natural Resources committee voted 12-0 Tuesday to ban fracking in state parks. The full bill, which aims to speed up the drilling permitting process, was then passed unanimously on the House floor Wednesday. It now heads to the Senate. Read more.


Chemical Industry Gets Free Pass in Vitter-Udall Bill: NYU Study Links Toxic Chemicals to Billions in Health Care Costs


Contact: Kathy Curtis, Clean and Healthy New York and the Workgroup for Public Policy Reform, (518) 708-3922kathy@cleanhealthyny.org

(New York, NY) A new bill that claims to update how chemicals are regulated in the United States, introduced today by Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Tom Udall (D-NM), is a sweet deal for the chemical industry that would keep exposing Americans to harmful chemicals while exposing the nation to billions in health care costs, a coalition of community, environmental and health groups said today.

The groups pointed to a new study by New York University that documents over $100 billion a year in health care costs in the European Union for diseases associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals, including IQ loss, ADHD, infertility, diabetes and other disorders that have been rising in the U.S.

The Vitter-Udall bill, introduced on Tuesday, March 10th, purports to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which was meant to protect the public from harmful chemicals but which has allowed tens of thousands of chemicals – including chemicals that cause cancer and other problems noted above – into the marketplace with little or no health and safety testing.

“New research links toxic chemicals with a range of illnesses and billions of dollars in health care costs, yet Senators Udall and Vitter are proposing a bill that doesn’t address major problems with current policies and would give the chemical industry a free pass to keep exposing Americans to harmful chemicals for decades to come,” said Katie Huffling, RN, CNM, Director of Programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, a network of nurses across the U.S. who have been working to reform TSCA.

“The chemical industry should not be allowed to draft the very laws meant to regulate them,” said Richard Moore from Los Jardines Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, also with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance.  “We need serious chemical reform that protects the health of all people including those who are living in ‘hot spots’ or ‘sacrifice zones’ – typically communities of color — that are highly impacted by chemical factories.”  Moore continued,  “It seems that my own Senator, Senator Udall, has forgotten the needs of his constituents in favor of meeting the needs of his industry friends.”  The New York Times reported last week that Sen. Udall has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the chemical industry.

Dorothy Felix from Mossville Environmental Action Now (MEAN) in Louisiana, said, “Because of the failure of TSCA, our community is faced with extensive toxic pollution that is causing us to consider relocating.  Senator Vitter and other legislators are well aware of these toxic impacts yet they are proposing a bill that would be even worse than current law. Let’s be clear: Senator Vitter’s bill is good for the chemical industry, not for the people who live daily with the consequences of toxic chemical exposures.”

“Chemical industry influence over the Vitter-Udall bill is unacceptable and the authors need to come back to the table and listen to the huge community of environmental and health groups that have been working on TSCA reform for decades,” said Martha Arguello, Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles.

“The regulatory framework for chemicals must protect health, especially the most vulnerable members of our society, and also must allow states to regulate toxic chemicals in order to protect their communities,” said Kathy Curtis, Executive Director of Clean and Healthy New York.  “State actions to protect their own residents are the only thing prompting federal action, and states should not lose that right.”

“We need 21st century, solution-based laws that empower agencies and people to live in a society that safeguards our health and environment.  This bill falls short of that goal,” said Jose Bravo, Executive Director of the Just Transition Alliance.   “The bill is called the ‘Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act’ but unfortunately it is a horrible reminder of what industry special interests can do to undermine our personal and environmental health.”

The groups are part of the Coming Clean coalition’s Workgroup for Public Policy Reform, which is advocating for TSCA reform to include the six principles outlined in the Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals:

  • ·         Require safer substitutes and solutions;
  • ·         Phase out persistent, bioaccumulative or highly toxic chemicals;
  • ·         Give the public and workers the full right to know;
  • ·         Act on early warnings;
  • ·         Require comprehensive safety data on all chemicals;
  • ·         Take immediate action to protect communities and workers

The Charter, in effect since 2004, provides a framework for comprehensive chemical policy reform in a manner that protects public health, preserves the environment and supports innovation for safer chemical solutions.

For more information on the Louisville Charter and federal chemical policy reform, including statements from other organizations on the newly-introduced TSCA bill, see www.smartpolicyreform.org.

- See more at: http://smartpolicyreform.org/for-the-media/news-items/chemical-industry-gets-free-pass-in-vitter-udall-bill-nyu-study-links-toxic-chemicals-to-billions-in-health-care-costs?f=87#sthash.P5EFY7Sf.dpuf


EU Commission plans to restrict phthalates


The European Commission has notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it intends to restrict the phthalates DEHP, BBP, DBP and DiBP under the revised EU Directive on the restriction of hazardous substances (RoHS2) in electrical and electronic equipment (CW 7 February 2014).

Read More!


Did Chemical Company Author New Chemical Bill


In recent days, a draft of the bill — considered the product of more than two years of negotiation and collaboration between Sen. David Vitter, R-La., Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and both chemical industry and environmental groups — was circulated by Udall’s office ahead of the hearing. The draft bill, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, is in the form of a Microsoft Worddocument. Rudimentary digital forensics — going to “advanced properties” in Word — shows the “company” of origin to be the American Chemistry Council.   Read full story here.


Putting the ‘Teeth’ into TSCA: A Tale of Two Bills


TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, is meant to do as its name suggests – control the introduction of potentially toxic chemicals into personal care products and the environment. The law, introduced in 1976, has been left untouched for decades. The chemical market now contains over 85,000 chemicals, with about 1,000 new chemicals introduced every year – and TSCA’s rules have only resulted in bans on five of these substances. ‘TSCA has no teeth’ is a common refrain among environmentalists, and speaks to the Act’s general incompetence in protecting human and environmental health.

How does TSCA work, and what makes it so ineffective? Essentially, TSCA requires that the EPA maintain a list – the TSCA Inventory – of all chemical substances that are manufactured or processed in the U.S.  Though companies must let the EPA know they are starting to manufacture a chemical, they have no responsibility to provide safety data along with this notice. The EPA can only require testing once they have proven the chemical presents a “potential risk,” creating a massive loophole for untested but potentially hazardous chemicals to enter the market. Not only are new chemicals subject to no scrutiny, but in-use chemicals are given the benefit of the doubt. When TSCA was first introduced, it “grandfathered in” all existing chemicals with the assumption they were safe for use. It’s readily apparent that there are more loopholes than law in TSCA.

Luckily, TSCA reform is back on the table, with the introduction of two new chemical regulation bills to Congress just last week. On March 10, Senators David Vitter and Tom Udall introduced a new bill that builds incrementally on a previous reform attempt, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act. Though the Udall-Vitter bill gives the EPA more power to regulate and requires safety testing of current and new chemicals, it has drawn criticism from environmental groups. The coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families released a letter critiquing the bill’s classification system for chemicals, which groups them as “High Priority” or “Low Priority” after an initial review. Chemicals deemed High Priority will be subject to further testing to determine their safety, while Low Priority chemicals will not, a distinction that may open a so-called ‘Low Priority Loophole’ with the potential for abuse by industry. Additionally, the bill curtails the ability of states to set their own more stringent regulations, a fact many environmental groups have criticized.

Senators Barbara Boxer and Ed Markey introduced their own bill, the Alan Reinstein and Trevor Schaefer Toxic Chemical Protection Act, on Thursday. Named after two cancer survivors, the bill employs stricter standards for chemical safety evaluation, sets deadlines for determining safety, and also allows states to continue to employ stricter regulations than those at the federal level. The Environmental Working Group has praised the bill, including its changes to safety-standard language. Instead of requiring EPA to prove a chemical has “no unreasonable risk of harm,” the bill sets the standard as “reasonable certainty of no harm” – the same standard that is applied to food additives and pesticides. The bill requires that the EPA consider risks that might result from unintended chemical spills, not just intended exposure levels. It also fast-tracks the safety analysis of asbestos, a proven cancer-causing agent that TSCA has thus far failed to regulate.

The Boxer-Markey bill shifts the burden of proof for chemical safety determination in a significant way. Rather than requiring proof of a chemical’s ‘unreasonable’ harm before regulation, it requires ‘reasonable’ certainty of its safety. Of course, there are still nuances and uncertainties in the determination of what constitutes “reasonable” safety, just as “unreasonable” harm is a flexible concept. All things considered, the Boxer-Markey bill takes the furthest step toward precaution that we have yet seen in Congress.

May the best bill win!


A Story of Health: Something for Everyone


Collaborative on Health and the Environment

We all know there are multiple contributors to health and disease, but let’s say you want to figure out what the latest science says on environmental links to, say, asthma? Or learning disabilities? Or childhood leukemia? Pretty daunting, isn’t it? Which websites have the most evidence-based science? Which articles are accessible without paying a subscription or membership fee? What do those research findings mean for your patients, your family, and community? And many other pressing questions. Most health care professionals can’t begin to keep up with the emerging scientific literature, much less the rest of us.

Fortunately, A Story of Health is a brilliant, innovative new resource that can help you find out how various environments interact with our genes to influence health across the lifespan. Based on the latest peer-reviewed research, it’s more than a bunch of scientific facts thrown together with fancy graphics. It’s a story, or really–multiple, interactive, and interconnected stories that touch us and teach us not only about risk factors for disease, but how to prevent disease and promote health and resilience.

You may think, ‘Well, of course Elise is singing its praises since CHE played a significant role in developing A Story of Health.’ Yes, it’s my day job to stay abreast of the latest research and what it means for our health, but I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be able to turn to A Story of Health now when I need to find some information I know has been vetted by dozens of researchers whom I respect. And I’m not alone in thinking this. Here are a few responses we’ve already received:

  • Brian Linde, MD, with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, CA: A Story of Healthis superb and fun to use. This is a fantastic resource. It is compelling, educational and engaging, and will absolutely make a difference. I will recommend it to friends, colleagues, medical students and residents.
  • David Bellinger, PhD, at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA:This…will be extremely helpful to a lot of constituencies.
  • Leslie Rubin, MD, at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, GAThe focus on a family and on each of their health challenges weaving in the environmental factors is masterful and I believe very effective. It is a wonderful format–and very cleverly done with a compelling story and interactive elements.

Take a look at it yourself. See what you think and let us know. Send it to colleagues. You’re also welcome to learn more by joining us next week on our second CHE partnership call related to A Story of Health–this one focused on “Brett’s Story” about asthma.

toxic hot seat

Toxic Hot Seat Screening TODAY!


The International Association of Firefighters is hosting a screening of the film, “Toxic Hot Seat” in Washington D.C. tomorrow. We hope you can join them!

What: Toxic Hot Seat Film Screening
When: Monday March 9, 7:00-8:30 p.m.
Where: Hyatt Capitol Hill, Congressional B Room – Lobby Level, Washington, D.C