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Sunday, 17 March, 2002, 03:06 GMT
River 'pollution' sparks fertility fears
Sewage works
Chemical could be flushed via sewage works into rivers
Chemicals blamed for changing the sex of male fish could affect human fertility, according to scientists in the UK.

A five-year study by the Environment Agency to be published later this month suggests that half the male fish in lowland English rivers are developing female characteristics because of pollution.

There are very real reasons to be worried about whether male reproductive health could be affected in the same way

Dr Susan Jobling
Scientists blame the pollution on a "potent" form of oestrogen found in urine from women using the contraceptive pill, which may be flushed through sewage works and into rivers.

They fear the chemical could contaminate drinking water - one third of which is taken from rivers.

The situation has been revealed in a joint investigation by the BBC's Country File programme and the Independent on Sunday newspaper. But the water industry and the Environment Agency strongly deny any threat to human health and say no such chemicals have been found in drinking water.

'Exquisitely potent'

Sperm counts have been falling in Britain for the last 50 years.

Fish killed by pollution
A third of the male fish had no sperm or damaged sperm
The agency study, funded by the government, examined roach from 10 rivers over the past five years and found "intersex" males in all of them.

Just under half of the male fish had developed eggs in their testes or female reproductive ducts.

One tenth were sterile and another quarter were producing damaged sperm, which appeared to be irreversible when put in clean water.

Previous studies showed a wide range of industrial chemicals were changing the sex of the fish. But the latest research suggests that the main culprit is a synthetic oestrogen called ethanol oestriadol, present in the contraceptive pill.

Professor Charles Taylor, from Exeter University, who is working on new technology for filtering water, warned the chemicals were "so exquisitely potent" that even tiny amounts, such as one part per billion, could feminise the fish.

"Some of the concentrations which we are seeing affecting fish are below the detection limit which is presently in place for testing our drinking water.

"So we cannot be sure that some of the compounds, albeit at very low concentrations, aren't getting into our drinking water."
Ten Rivers Tested
Lea in Herts
Blackwater in Essex
Arun in W Sussex
Avon in Bristol
Rea in Shropshire
Wreake in Leics
Nene in E Midlands
Ouse in N Yorks
Calder in W Yorks
Aire in W Yorks
The scientist who carried out the research, Dr Susan Jobling, from Brunel University, said the research on fish should be taken as a warning to humans.

She said: "The issue is not just about fish. Everything that we eat, put on our skin, throw down the drain, ends up in the sewage treatment works and ultimately in the river.

"So one could argue that we are actually living in a sea of oestrogen, a chemical cocktail, and therefore I think there are very real reasons to be worried about whether male reproductive health could also be affected in the same way that fish reproductive health is affected."

If that was the case, water companies could be forced to invest hundreds of millions of pounds on new sewage works.

Dr Susan Jobling, Brunel University
"There are very real reasons to be worried"
See also:

05 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
UK waterways 'cleaner than ever'
20 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
UK's polluted rivers named
05 Sep 01 | UK
Contaminated water fine
20 Apr 01 | UK
UK river quality survey
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