Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Whither Our Water? Addressing Hormones in Local Waterways

Biology Professor Gives SurelyYouNest the Straight Dope
on Endocrine Disruptors in our Waterways

Anyone who has a kid, heck, anyone who drinks water has done a double-take on the hermaphrodite fish in our waterways. Um, are egg-producing male fish swimming around in my iced tea water? I'm just askin'.

Hermaphroditism isn't just rampant in the Potomac River here in the nation's capitol. Intersex fish are showing up in waterways all over the country. They're not sure why (birth control pills and chicken farm runoff are two top candidates), and most wastewater treatment plants are doing exactly, ah, nothing about it. My local councilmember emailed our water and sewer authority and they had this to say: Not it! We aren't doing anything atall because it's not mandated by the Clean Water Act but if forced to by regulations we will address the hormone issue in the future. In slightly more positive language, of course:
WASA is aware of the presence of these chemicals in wastewater and in the waterways. The science and technology of treating these chemicals in large waste treatment facilities have not been developed yet. Presently, these are not regulated by the federal Clean Water Act. WASA will continue to monitor developments related to these and other emerging pollutants of concern, and will take necessary steps as required and is feasible, especially to comply with related regulatory requirements. As with other chemicals that impact the environment, the most effective steps to take is to control these at the source, and any steps that can be taken to do so would be welcome.
The EPA gave hormones in the the Potomac a concern ranking of eight back in 2006. DCist had this to say at the time:
Presumably this eight lies on your typical scale of one to ten, one being "someone might have peed in the river" and ten being "water-loving alien creatures have made the Potomac their homebase to mete out the destruction of the human race."
A pollutant of emerging concern? I'll say it again, holy man-boobs, Batman! I want to drink clean water. And I know that tap water is more environmentally friendly but I have been loath to drink DC's H2O. Heck, I have been par-tic-u-lar about my water since I was in high school -- when I first posted about my water sourcing agonies here, my friend's mom wrote in chuckling to remind me that I wouldn't even come for sleepovers without my trusty Brita pitcher.

Ah, the power of an interview with a kind, generous-with-his time scientist and professor to ease my mind! Turns out my creative writing degree makes for some wonderfully imaginative bedtime stories but proved dead wrong on the drinking water front. And not just because our federal government hasn't put a finger on the source of their concern yet. It's because the water we swim in is more likely to have issues than the water we drink. See below for the details -- but from now on, it's a sigh of relief and back to the tap for me. I'll be quaffing local water to hydrate while I figure out how to register my concern about chemicals in our waterways, and the impact on not only marine life (some of which we eat) but our swimming holes.

My eternal gratitude to Dr. Alan S. Kolok at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, for taking so much time (on a holiday weekend, no less) to answer my questions. Dr. Kolok is an environmental toxicologist who has researched the effects of estrogenic compounds in wastewater treatment with regard to the feminization of male fish.


Dear Dr. Kolok:

Please forgive this intrusion into your professional life, but I am a resident of Washington, DC who is concerned about the large numbers of intersex fish in the Potomac. I've contacted my local officials and WASA, the local water authority, and was told that since this is an "emerging pollutant of concern" that's not covered by the Clean Water Act, no action's being taken to treat DC water.

DrK: That is true.

Furthermore, WASA indicated that there are no existing methods to treat wastewater to remove hormones. Just from surfing online, this seems not to be the case.

DrK: I am not aware of municipalities that have made changes to their treatment specifically to remove hormones. However, there is a growing dataset supporting that aerobic digestion of is an effective remidiation technology for hormones.

Do you know of cities in which wastewater treatment removes chemicals including estrogen?

DrK: In Nebraska the small cities that have incorporated aerobic digestion at their facilities have not been found to be releasing hormones into the environment. I know of at least two facilities in Nebraska that do not use aerobic digestion and are releasing hormones into the environment. This has been found to be true in other states and other countries as well.

Do you have any advice for me as I attempt to figure out a)how to get my water treatment facility to take this issue seriously?

DrK: There are two components to water treatment: wastewater treatment and drinking water. While wastewater treatment has been shown to contain steroids, I am not aware of any studies finding significant concentrations of steroids in drinking water. I would be very surprised to find that both the drinking water and
waste water facilities in D.C. were not concerned about the issue. What to do about it, and how to generate the funds and political will to get it done is a very different matter.

...and b)whether or not the hormones in my public water supply are of concern for my (small) children?

DrK: Your drinking water is most likely safe. In fact, with governmental regulations for drinking water, the water that you get out of the tap is probably better for you than the water that you could drink out of a plastic bottle! Buy a Brita filter (these are fairly cheap) and keep filtered tap water in your fridge, if you are still concerned (this is what my family does).

Sewage effluent will not be a direct problem for your children providing you are vigilent about where they swim (in Connecticut, when I grew up, I used to swim at a beach near a river that drained the town dump! I wouldn't let my children swim there today), and also where your fresh seafood comes from.If you fish or enjoy other local seafood, make sure that you eat in moderation and that it comes from clean environments.

Remember that fish live in water constantly, and are subjected to every chemical dissolved in the water. Your children have a much more limited access to water, and short of swimming, their exposure to raw, untreated water is very minimal.

Alan S. Kolok
Department of Biology
University of Nebraska at Omaha


wrekehavoc said...

for the love of Dog, PLEASE do something on this. i will be glad to help. i don't want my kids to grow six heads... or worse...

so interesting! in a scary, scary way, of course.

Sharley said...

Sometimes us humans just seem to smart for our own good. Sigh.

Are these hormones in the water from (women) who take BC peeing? Or is it from improper disposal of the pills? I followed a few of your links and couldn't come up with an answer.

MamaBird said...

I believe it's from women peeing the BC pills out, not improper disposal. Agricultural runoff is improper disposal...

Lynn said...

Great post! Loved the interview.

Susannah said...

Great interview! Email made it possible don't you think? You probably wouldn't have called him and/or he probably wouldn't have responded as quickly in snail mail (our past alternatives for connecting to experts). Congrats on a super post (but I'm still drinking Deer Park :)

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Scary stuff.