- Every male fish in some European rivers show pronounced
female characteristics, according to Professor Alan Pickering of the Natural
Environment Research Council. Speaking to the British Association's Festival
of Science in London earlier this month, Pickering said, "We are finding
this problem right across northern Europe, it is clearly widespread."
- Pickering said that "It seems to relate to a mixture
of chemicals both industrial and also some of the natural excretory products
from the human body." These substances, known as endocrine disrupting
chemicals (EDCs) or "gender-benders, are found in some agrochemicals,
paints, oils, toiletry products and detergents. They mimic the hormones
produced by the female ovaries and the male testes in animals, which regulate
growth and reproduction.
- The evidence that they affect human health is conflicting
and controversial. According to a report by the Royal Society in June 2000,
"Humans are exposed daily to environmental chemicals which have potential
endocrine disrupting activity, raising concerns, provided that the level
of exposure is sufficient, that such chemicals might be linked with phenomena
such as declining sperm count in the adult male, testicular cancer, breast
cancer, age at puberty, etc. The incidence of testicular cancer, for example,
has increased three-fold in the last thirty years in Britain, becoming
the commonest cancer in young men.
- However, the situation is complex, also involving genetic
and dietary factors. Breast cancer in China and Japan is much lower than
in Western countries. Scientists think this could be linked to a high-fibre,
low fat diet, and yet there is high consumption of soya in these countries,
which produces weak EDCs.
- Because humans produce hormones in their bodies naturally,
the effects of EDCs are difficult to unravel. But it is thought possible
that the foetus, which is naturally protected from the high levels of hormones
in its pregnant mother, could still be affected.
- Chemicals that are now known to be EDCs were first manufactured
in the 1930s. In 1938 researchers showed that medicines containing them
could cause reproductive changes. In the 1950s and 60s, a synthetic female
hormone, diethylstilbesrol, given to prevent miscarriages increased vaginal
abnormalities in mothers and reduced fertility in some of the six million
babies that were exposed to it.
- Evidence of similar effects in the environment was developing.
Pesticides such as DDT caused reproductive problems in animals and paints
used on ships to prevent the growth of barnacles led to shellfish sterility.
- In England, the government-run Water Research Centre
published a report called Steroids as Water Pollutants in 1976. (Steroids
include the female hormone oestrogen and its male counterpart testosterone,
as well as hormones produced by the adrenal gland.)
- At about the same time abnormal fish were noticed in
rivers in southern England downstream of sewage works. Scientists first
thought pharmaceutical factory wastes discharging into the sewers were
the cause. Research into the abnormalities was carried out in 1981 by Liverpool
University, commissioned by the then state-owned water authorities. It
was never published because they claimed the research was flawed.
- The Ministry of Agriculture carried out a further investigation
in 1988 that showed "all sewage treatment works effluents were oestrogenic
to fish and whatever chemical, or mixture of chemicals was causing the
effects, it was ubiquitous. It was suggested that natural and synthetic
oestrogens were the cause. The Conservative government kept these potentially
explosive discoveries confidential"they were in the middle of privatising
the water industry" until 1992. Even then the research was only published
in a magazine produced by the Foundation for Water Research that had a
restricted circulation within government departments and the water industry.
- A further one-off study was commissioned by the government
to look at river water used in the public water supply. It concluded there
was "insufficient evidence to justify general regulatory action, other
than further research. It appears that the EDCs in sewage break down in
the river or are destroyed in the water treatment works.
- This research was also intended to be confidential, but
in 1993 specialist magazines, then newspapers and the BBC's Countryfile
program had picked up the Foundation for Water Research report. The BBC
program Horizon later that year brought the issue to wider public attention.
It accused the water companies and government of a cover-up. It quoted
a water company spokesman who said, "There is no need and no requirement
in the United Kingdom Water Quality Regulations to look for these substances.
Nor are sufficiently sensitive techniques available. Hence routine monitoring
has not been carried out.
- Although the regulations say the companies should monitor
for a few dozen specific substances, they also say the companies should
monitor for any other substance that could be injurious to public health.
It is likely the companies have monitored for hormones in the public water
supply, despite the difficulties of analysis. The results have never been
made public, even though the companies say the treatment process destroys
hormones and the water is safe. (One might ask, if the methods used to
analyse hormones were suspect, how could the companies say the water was
- This year the Labour government has updated the Regulations
in line with revised European legislation, but EDCs are not mentioned specifically.
How much of this was due to lobbying by the powerful water industry group
EUREAU is uncertain.
- In the meantime, Britain's water companies have other
problems. They have carried out a large program of water pipe renewal.
To cut costs existing pipes have been lined inside with plastic rather
than being dug up and replaced. This involved the use of epoxy resins containing
bisphenol-A, another EDC, to harden the plastic. In 1995, Welsh Water was
prosecuted for not checking the resins had set before using the renovated
pipe work for drinking water.
- Despite this evidence and an Environment Agency report
in 1997 that enzymes in sewage re-activated hormones normally excreted
by humans in an inactive form, the government said the following year that
it had "made no estimates of cost of removal since the impacts are
- Recent scientific evidence confirms the suggestion made
in 1988 that two natural human hormones and one synthetic contraceptive
hormone are the likely EDCs in sewage works' discharges. On the River Aire
in Yorkshire it is chemical rather than human substances that are responsible"an
industrial detergent used for cleaning wool in the remaining mills along
- It is clear that the British government and the water
companies have worked together to minimise the impact of the revelations.
The House of Lords also criticised water companies for doing the bare minimum
of research into water safety compared to the huge profits they have made
since privatisation. The situation has been further complicated by the
confidentiality surrounding the precise chemical formulae of many industrial
- Vital time has been lost in the scientific resolution
of this complex environmental problem. The Royal Society recommended in
its June 2000 report that the "effects of endocrine chemicals released
into the environment should be further investigated and that "regulations
cannot be put on hold' until all the evidence has been collected. Twenty
five years after the first abnormal fish were discovered in Britain's rivers,
the report notes that, "Few, if any, studies have attempted to look
for such evidence affecting human health and there has been "no guidelines
on testing pharmaceuticals for environmental impact, despite the fact that
these chemicals are designed to be extremely potent and to degrade slowly.
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