Working together to keep today's treasures for tomorrow slide image Protecting the natural heritage of this diverse estuary slide image Promoting water quality and land preservation slide image Supporting a rich ecosystem for our local economy and quality of life slide image Managing our natural resources through consensus building slide image

News and Resources

Estrogen as a Contaminant of Emerging Concern in Our Waterways - January 3, 2016

In this day and age, chemicals are present in just about every facet of life. These chemicals are used in pharmaceuticals, disinfectants, preservatives, and countless other materials. The downside to these beneficial chemicals is that they often make their way into the environment. The environmental effect of many chemicals is already known, however; the effects of other chemicals are just now surfacing. These chemicals are known as contaminants of emerging concern (CEC).  CECs are synthetic or naturally occurring chemicals that are not commonly monitored in the environment, and therefore are not generally regulated but have the potential to enter the environment and cause adverse effects. Estrogenic compounds are one group of chemicals listed on the Contaminant Candidate List 3 that was compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are eight forms of estrogen listed as CECs which are not subject to drinking water regulations and are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems.

 Estrogen is considered to be an endocrine disrupting chemical as it interferes with natural hormone functions. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the body’s endocrine or hormone system. They have adverse effects on the reproductive health and metabolism of aquatic vertebrates. Estrogenic compounds are produced both synthetically and naturally. One estrogenic compound, Estradiol, is naturally produced within the ovaries of female organisms. Estrogenic compounds are also widely used in birth control pharmaceuticals and hormone replacement therapy. Estradiol is used to treat symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes, to prevent osteoporosis, as a replacement of estrogen in women with ovarian failure, and as a cancer treatment for men and women. Estrogen has also been added to the commercial feed of livestock and other commercially produced animal feed. Estrogenic compounds have been used in pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, in growth promoters, and feed additives in fish farms.  These compounds enter the waterways through municipal water sewage, animal waste disposal, and poultry litter and cattle manure use in agriculture for fertilizer.

Estrogenic compounds have been shown to have negative impacts on aquatic animals, especially fish. When exposed to these compounds, feminization in male fish can occur. The estrogenic compounds induce production of a protein known as vitellogenin (VTG), which is a precursor of egg-yolk protein found in female fish. When male fish start to produce VTG, the males will produce egg yolks and eventually eggs. VTG production in males can occur at estrogen concentrations as low as 1.0 ppb.  A study on yellow perch in the Chesapeake Bay found that high estrogen concentrations caused a lack of reproductive success among the species. The sites of reproductive issues were near urban watersheds such as the Severn and South rivers. Egg abnormalities were also found in yellow perch in the Severn River but not more rural sites such as the Choptank.

Estrogen levels on the Maryland Eastern Shore had concentrations in the Wicomico, Pocomoke, and Manokin Rivers between 1.9 and 6.0 parts per billion (ppb). The coastal bays; Assawoman and Chincoteague, and the Tangier Sound and Monie Bay in the Chesapeake Bay, had concentrations between 2.3 and 3.2 ppb. Highest estrogen concentrations were found downstream from waste water treatment plants. One study performed on influent and effluent water from treatment plants, found that water treatment removes a large percentage of the estrogen but high concentrations still remained.

 Estrogenic compounds can have negative impacts on human health as well. They can increase the risk of uterine cancer, breast cancer, blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. Estradiol has even been known to harm unborn babies and cause birth defects. Even after birth, Estradiol can pass into breast milk and slow the production of milk.  Side effects of using Estradiol include breast pain, headache, thinning scalp hair, and nausea or vomiting. 

While estrogenic compounds can have negative impacts, they can also improve the lives of many people. To reduce the negative effect of estrogen on the environment it is important to properly dispose of pharmaceuticals containing these compounds. Purchasing hormone free meat and properly treating waste water can also reduce the amount of estrogen entering the environment.

 

Phillips is the Program Manager for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



Archived News

More Archived News
View Current News

U.S EPA News Region 3

Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program
Coastal Bays Program