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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 18:12 GMT
NI scientists' hormone pollution solution
Tony Byrne leads the University of Ulster's photocatalysis research group
Dr Byrne is developing reactor to break down hormones
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By Jane Bardon
BBC News Online Belfast
Many scientific studies have suggested a build-up of female hormones in water courses is changing the sex of male fish.

This week the result of the UK Environment Agency's own five-year research project concluded that traces of the female hormone oestrogen in English lowland rivers are affecting the reproductive ability of male fish.

Scientists say the fish are developing female characteristics, including reproductive organs, because they are being affected by a potent oestrogen found in the urine of women using the contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy.

Publication of the agency's research has added new fuel to the debate on the possible risks these pollutants pose to the environment and to animal and human health.

Most potent oestrogens found in the environment make up contraceptive pills
Most potent oestrogens are contained in contraceptive pills

The experts are still divided on whether the hormones being discharged into water courses and the sea are being effectively removed from drinking water supplies.

But while it may take years to conclusively prove or disprove a risk, it seems certain that the presence of oestrogens in water being discharged from sewage treatment work is a real and growing problem.

A group of Northern Ireland scientists have already been working on a way to combat it.

Dr Tony Byrne, head of the University of Ulster's photocatalysis research group, said: "When a woman takes these pills only about 20% of the oestrogens are used by her body and she discharges 80% into the sewage system.

"The problem is that these oestrogens can be effective at nanogram levels - traces so small that they are very hard to detect.

Titanium oxide and UV light are used to remove hormones
Titanium oxide and UV light are used to remove hormones

"We have been looking both at developing sensors to detect these very small amounts and at ways of removing them using photocatalysis."

Most of Northern Ireland's drinking water is taken from reservoirs filled with rainwater, which should not contain pollutants such as oestrogens.

But many EU countries abstract most drinking water from ground water sources.

Dr Byrne said we should not take the view that this is not a problem in our own back yard.

"The concern is that this has got so far up the food chain that it is difficult to determine the global impact.

Dr Heather Coleman based her PHD on removing oestrogens from water
Dr Heather Coleman proved effectiveness of photocatalysis

The impact of oestrogens, and chemicals which mimic oestrogens, greatly concerns Dr Heather Coleman, who completed her PhD at the University of Ulster and now works as a researcher at Queen's University Belfast.

"As part of my research I went to the University of Oslo's polar research station in Svalbard, where we found high levels of oestrogen mimics called PCBs in glaucous gulls, Arctic foxes and polar bears," she said.

"The PCBs are travelling up the food chain from fish to seals, which the bears eat, to the bears.

"Some bear cubs are born with both male and female reproductive organs and bear numbers are dropping.

"The worrying thing is that polar bears are at the same level of the food chain as ourselves. Why wouldn't it effect humans?"

Polar bear cubs had male and female reproductive organs
Polar bear cubs had male and female reproductive organs

It was Dr Coleman who first proved that the photocatalysis system - using titanium oxide and UV light - was ten times as effective at removing all oestrogenic pollutants from water than simply using a UV light, while working with scientists at Brunel University in London.

"Water treatment is the key. It would be easy to integrate photocatalysis as the very last stage in water treatment. It would remove, not just oestrogen, but a wide range of pollutants."

Dr Coleman added: "These oestrogenic pollutants could be contributing to the falling sperm counts among men and to testicular and breast cancer.

"The problem is getting people interested. The government agencies are very complacent. They said they didn't know anything about the problem, so therefore we don't have it."

A Department of Regional Development spokeswoman at Stormont said the Water Service was not carrying out any research into oestrogens in water in Northern Ireland.

But she pointed out the Water Service is a member of Water UK - an affiliation of the UK's water companies - which is carrying out research.

Reacting to the Environment Agency's conclusions, Water UK said the water industry would "respond positively to the proposals for a collaborative programme to look further at the impacts and to evaluate the treatment options".

See also:

25 Jan 99 | Sci/Tech
UN tackles toxic pollutants
18 Dec 98 | Sci/Tech
More Arctic pollution found
23 Nov 98 | Sci/Tech
Sea life changing sex
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