Hormones… the menace in our water

They’re not visible to the human eye, but unseen pollutants in the form of female sex hormones are frighteningly common in our waterways… and that is bad news for people and wildlife alike. Vicky Ellis investigates.

We have something sinister wreaking havoc in our waterways that we can’t see or smell and that has a direct effect on our physiology: female sex hormones – natural oestrogens and synthetic chemicals that imitate oestrogens. This invisible pollutant is penetrating all our natural waterways and entering our drinking water supply chain.
Research by Brunel University and the University of Exeter has found these pollutants are entering the water via our sewage systems, leading to reduced fish-breeding and feminising of fish and other aquatic organisms. Other studies have found a causational link between hormones in water and an increase in human male infertility, low sperm counts and testicular dysgenesis syndrome (a male reproduction disorder).

What are hormones?
Hormones are signalling molecules, otherwise known as chemical messengers, that are present in all multicellular organisms from humans through to fungi. In humans and other animals, hormones are produced in the endocrine gland and carried around the body via the vascular system to all organs and tissues to regulate physiology and behaviour such as development and growth, metabolism, sexual function and reproduction, cognitive function, mood and much more.
Hormones influence who we are as people.

So, apart from in nature, where else are hormones used?
Humans also use hormones to manipulate nature, such as in animal agriculture to muscle up cattle; in the gym for bodybuilders to bulk up, where they are referred to more commonly as steroids; for contraception; and to help with symptoms of the menopause, along with other pharmaceutical uses.

Animal agriculture
Animal agricultures use a synthetic hormone version of oestrogen, testosterone or progesterone, which are utilised to increase growth speed, thus using less feed and saving money. However, in the UK, using hormones for dairy cattle has been banned since 1990 due to animal welfare implications. The UK also has a ban on importing all hormone-treated beef and other meats. However, this may be under review since leaving the EU.

Oral contraception
The UK’s first oral contraceptives, using synthetic hormones, became available in 1961 and since then their popularity has grown considerably. From 1962 to 1969 the number of women taking ‘the pill’ grew from an estimated 50,000 to one million, and in 2000 the numbers had risen to more than three million, making the birth-control pill the most popular form of contraception in the UK.

Synthetic hormones
Synthetic hormones lack a chemical structure that matches a woman’s biological hormone structure. They are produced by synthesis – oestrogen and progesterone are synthesised from other sources such as pregnant mares (a highly controversial source of extraction).
Synthetic hormones have several uses, from the contraceptive pill through to cancer treatments. Diethylstilbestrol is a synthetic oestrogen first synthesised in 1938 and prescribed to many women between 1940 and 1971 for the prevention of miscarriage in the first trimester. Due to unforeseen side-effects, it is no longer prescribed.
All the metabolites from this hormone and others are then released into the environment via urine and faeces from users. According to the Daily Mail article ‘Fertility timebomb found in drinking water’, synthetic oestrogens are 50-100 times more potent than natural oestrogens.
Hormones are in such wide use now that they pose a serious threat to the natural environment, from soil to water resources, and biological organisms such as fish and humans.
However, this is not new news: in 2010 Susanne Goldenberg wrote a report detailing that “more than 80% of the male bass fish in Washington’s major river are exhibiting female traits such as egg production because of a ‘toxic stew’ of pollutants”, while in 2012 The Observer reported on how “Britain faced a £30bn bill to clean up rivers, streams and drinking water supplies contaminated by synthetic hormones from contraceptive pills”. In 2014, the BBC produced an article entitled ‘How drugs are entering UK water systems through urine’ and in 2016 The National Geographic wrote an article with the headline ‘Why are these male fish growing eggs?’. Hormone pollution is not just a UK-wide issue but a global one.

Oestrogen in water courses and how they got there
Back in 1999, the Environment Agency produced a report entitled ‘Fate and behaviour of steroid oestrogens in rivers: A scoping study’. This was a 94-page research report focusing exclusively on three oestrogen compounds: two natural oestrogens – oestrone and 17β oestradiol – and one synthetic hormone, ethynyl-oestradiol. This research, financed by Defra and the Natural Environment Research Council, concluded that half of all male fish in our rivers were changing sex because of pollution by these three hormones.
Natural hormones are generally inactive, or if active only at high doses due to the body’s ability to metabolise them rapidly. Synthetic hormones are more stable and remain within the body long enough to be utilised as contraceptives. This increased stability results in up to 80 per cent being excreted in conjugated form.
According to the report, all three hormones are excreted in a relatively stable and inactive form, so an adverse effect on the watercourses would seem unlikely. Therefore, something must occur to destabilise these hormones in the sewage treatment works. It was discovered that large quantities of active, unconjugated oestrogens were indeed present in treated sewage.
The same principle would apply to animal agriculture. Only the animal excretes on to the ground and the hormones then seep into water courses and may even be spread during muck-spreading.

The effects on fish and other organisms
Vitellogenin (a protein found in the blood stream synthesised by female fish to produce egg yolk) is used as a biomarker and has been observed to be produced by both male and juvenile females, with increased levels in mature females along polluted stretches of rivers, with some fish being reported as hermaphrodites. The danger with steroids, in comparison with other pollutants, is that the nature of sex hormones is such that even at low levels they can still have a profound effect on an organism’s physical development.
Synthetic oestrogen, found to be present in all lowland rivers in the UK, led to male fish developing female characteristics, with 50 per cent producing eggs in their testes; one in 10 were sterile and a quarter had damaged sperm, according to the company Pure Water People.
The Independent reported that all rivers, including the Lea in Hertfordshire, which supplies London with drinking water, and the Avon in Bristol, had male fish that had become feminised.
According to Adeel et al, as well as disrupting fish physiology, polluting oestrogens also negatively affect the development in both domestic animals and wildlife, and treatment of oestrogen was found to have affected root and shoot development, flowering and germination in flora.
Lab rats and mice when exposed to oestrogen, were found to be adversely affected by increased sexual behaviour, greater weight of the placenta, increased litter numbers and size of pups for gestational age in mice, higher abortion rates and changes of maternal behaviour in rats and advanced puberty.
In humans, women in Spain exposed to exogenous oestrogens were found to have an increased risk of breast cancer. In China, urinary phytoestrogen levels were associated with idiopathic infertility in men. Obesity has also been cited as an adverse effect, so could drinking water be inadvertently contributing to obesity?

How many oestrogen pollutants are in our drinking water?
Pure Water People claims it is hard to quantify how much oestrogen is present in drinking water as it’s difficult to measure at low concentrations. The American Chemical Society says that the contraception pill accounts for less than 1 per cent of the oestrogens found in the nation’s drinking water, concluding that hormones enter drinking water from other sources. However, 1 per cent of a massive data set amounts to quite a considerable percentage; furthermore, oestrogen has been found to be harmful at even very low doses.

Solutions to a man-made pollutant problem
So now we have created this problem for us and the natural environment, how can we best solve it?
Researchers are looking to neutralise these oestrogens in several ways before they enter the environment. One such idea is to use activated carbons in much the same way as a domestic water filter works. The active carbon hoovers up the oestrogens, allowing pure water to flow through.
Another method being tested is the use of ozone gas as a means to treat wastewater. Ozone works by splitting the molecules into less active biproducts. However, the downside and consequence of this method is that ozone can create toxic by-products such as bromate, which is considered carcinogenic, so then a further treatment would be required to remove this carcinogen.
Both these methods work small-scale but would take some thinking to scale up for use in industrial-sized sewage plants. Some water treatment plants such as that at Bewl Water have the facilities for ozonisation followed by active carbon treatment.
Switzerland’s recently introduced regulations aim to lower hormones in the environment by upgrading sewage plants and it is using ozone and/or activated carbon. However, researchers estimate the costs of running the water treatment plants will increase, along with energy consumption.
Another viable alternative is peroxide. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Brunel University have worked together and claim this method is “promising”. They used a concentrated type of hydrogen peroxide alongside bespoke catalysts that act similarly to enzymes to accelerate the chemical reaction and denature synthetic oestrogens in water, urine and wastewater. They also tested this cleaned water by placing feminised male fish in a tank and found the male fish made less vitellogenin.
The most recent paper on the subject, ‘Water treatment: Removing hormones with sunlight’, published in 2021 by the KIT institute, acknowledges the issues surrounding scalability with the other methods and has come up with the idea of utilising photocatalysis, transforming the hormones into benign oxidation products and consequently reducing the concentration of oestradiol by some 98 per cent by filtering 60-600 litres of water per square meter of membrane in one hour. This would make this method more easily scalable but is still not without its challenges.
So, you can rest assured there are scientists who recognise the seriousness of this invisible pollutant and are working hard on a solution to help not just us but the natural environment.
If hormones in our water teaches us one thing, it’s how intrinsically linked we are to the health of the natural environment around us and that how we treat this natural environment can directly impact on our own health. A lesson, perhaps, to take note.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

It’s out! The latest edition of Kent Countryside Voice is here for you all to enjoy

The wait is over – the spring edition of Kent Countryside Voice is with us!
Features on the glory of hedgerows, possible ways to tackle the county’s water crisis and the threat posed by a planned theme park to a wildlife haven are among a cornucopia of treats for all who treasure our county’s countryside.
So settle back with a brew or your favourite tipple and enjoy a great read here

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Water: we’re already struggling, so what of the future?

The region is already severely water-stressed; the low water levels at Bewl Water are clear to see in this picture

On the day the Environment Agency has released a report warning we could be facing water shortages as soon as 2050, concerns have been raised about such provision for the planned Otterpool Park new town near Hythe.
The report, The State of the Environment: Water Resources, paints a sorry picture of unsustainable levels of water abstraction, leakage from water companies – estimated at three billion litres a day nationally – and high demand combining to harm ecology and wildlife, as well as threaten public supply.
Introducing the report, Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “We need to change our attitudes to water use. It is the most fundamental thing needed to ensure a healthy environment, but we are taking too much of it and have to work together to manage this precious resource.
“Industry must innovate and change behaviours in order to reduce demand and cut down on wastage – and we all have a duty to use water more wisely at home.
“With demand on the rise, water companies must invest more in infrastructure to address leakage instead of relying on abstraction and the natural environment to make up this shortfall.”
According to the EA report, levels of abstraction are unsustainable in more than a quarter of groundwaters and one fifth of rivers, leading to harmfully reduced flows.
Climate change and population growth are expected to exacerbate the problem, with summer river flows and groundwater levels likely to fall yet further.
The government has already introduced a plan for abstraction reform that will review licences and introduce greater controls to protect resources, while its 25 Year Environment Plan, announced in January, aims to reduce individual water use – on average 140 litres per person a day – by working with industry to set a personal consumption target.
Predictably, given its population pressures and low rainfall, the South East is the region most likely to face water shortages.
With all this in mind, it is salient to question how water will be provided for the huge levels of housing growth within Kent predicted by the government’s new proposals for calculating demand.
One of the largest potential developments in the county is the planned 10,000-home Otterpool Park near Westenhanger.
Graham Horner, CPRE Kent’s local chairman, said: “Looked at objectively, the local water company is not even planning for the number of people envisaged to be in the area.
“Affinity Water is carrying out a public consultation on its draft Water Resources Management Plan, but the number of households referred to isn’t anywhere near the figure in the Folkestone & Hythe District Council Core Strategy Review.”
So how is this apparent disconnect going to be tackled?
“The current council core strategy allows for 90 litres being used per person per day for strategic developments, but the core strategy review has a relaxed figure of 110 litres, so it’s going in the wrong direction,” said Mr Horner.
“Further, the actual local figure is 127 litres being used per person per day, although nationally it’s 140 litres.”
It’s not overly encouraging reading, but the one positive is that personal water consumption in Folkestone and Hythe area is lower than it is nationally.
Mr Horner puts this down essentially to two factors.
“I suspect people in this area are aware there’s a water shortage, while the penetration of metering – which means people have to pay for what they use –in this area is above average.”
As for the future, Mr Horner believes new homes will be fitted with water-saving features such as shower aerators, but even there he sounds a cautionary note.
“You can’t police these things. People might find they’re not happy with the water pressure in their shower and retrofit different systems.
“Quite simply, we’ve got to get people to use less water. It’s about education.”
One way forward might be recycling, but it has an image problem.
“We can re-use water and waste – collect it, treat it and stick it straight back into the aquifer. But people don’t want to drink their own waste.”
Nevertheless, in the face of the EA warnings about our existing water stresses and future water availability, it is clear we need to challenge the assumption that the majority of economic and population growth will continue to be focused on the South East.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018   

The menace of plastic around Kentish shores

The remains of plastic bottles are ending up in the county’s marine life

If you needed any convincing about the importance of CPRE’s campaign for deposits to be introduced on plastic bottles, the findings of a survey carried out in Kent should surely do the job.

A team from King’s College London checked four beaches in the county and found that about two-thirds of the mussels tested for contamination contained plastic detritus.

Ramsgate molluscs came out worst, with 80 per cent harbouring ‘microplastics’, the worn-down remnants of water bottles, plastic bags and other rubbish.

The figure was 40 per cent for mussels tested at Herne Bay, the study, carried out for the BBC’s Inside Out show and reported on Mail Online, revealed.

The environmental impact on our marine life is of course disturbing enough, but there are fears that plastics are entering the food chain to the level that they are being eaten by humans.
For more on this story, visit www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4962778/Two-three-mussels-Kent-contaminated-plastics.html

‘Frack free zone’ called for in East Kent

CPRE Kent is calling on the Government to make East Kent a ‘frack free zone’ because of serious risks to the water supply if drilling took place.

It believes that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at the four potential drilling sites – Shepherdswell, Guston, Tilmanstone and Woodnesborough – could damage the aquifer which supplies 70% of the county’s water.

The gas and oil deposits are no more than 600-700m below the aquifer, the Chalk of the North Downs. Not only that, but there is a risk that geological faults in the area would be re-activated allowing gases and fracking fluids to leak into the chalk and so contaminate the water supply.

Image from BGS: copyright NERC 2014

Image from BGS: copyright NERC 2014

CPRE Kent has prepared a ministerial briefing outlining the serious threat to East Kent and is calling on the Minister of State for Energy Matthew Hancock to make East Kent an exclusion area from fracking.

CPRE Kent Vice President Richard Knox-Johnston said: “Water resources in Kent are already seriously stressed – there is a danger that if fracking went ahead we could damage the aquifer that provides most of the county’s water. Plus, we fear that water supply boreholes could be damaged causing pollution which would threaten public health as well as harm environmental quality, agriculture and wetland habitats.” Continue reading

Yet another dash to frack…

Hard on the heels of the UKOOG report published last week, the Lords Economic Affairs Committee (here) today also calls for the UK to speed up the exploitation of its shale gas reserves, again highlighting the potential benefits to the economy and down-playing the risk of harm to the environment. Much less emphasis is being placed on the need to ensure the safety of the process and very little is being placed on the down-side of diverting attention from the need to develop a safe, cost-effective renewable energy regime which will help break us from our addiction to fossil fuels.

It’s ironic that on the very same day Lloyds of London have published a report which highlights the increasing costs to the insurance industry of more frequent severe weather events such as storms and flooding – it seems clear that increasing our reliance on fossil fuels will have economic consequences that are by no means wholly positive.
(Image from Wikipedia)

The dash to frack

This morning’s release of the report from the UK Onshore Operators Group highlighted the huge potential benefits to the economy of pressing ahead with the exploitation of shale gas. Here in Kent we are increasingly concerned by the overly-enthusiastic emphasis on potential economic benefits which is being highlighted by groups like UKOOG. The word ‘potential’ is the focus of our concern. These benefits can not be guaranteed, and in fact, many within the industry such as Cuadrilla have acknowledged that shale gas extraction simply will not lead to lower energy prices, and the oil and gas industry can never guarantee that its exploration will find economic quantities of gas.

However, if the UK Government does press ahead with its commitment to fracking, we are opening our countryside up to a host of environmental damage as a result, as well as its guaranteed industrialisation with more HGV movements http://modafinil200mg.net along narrow lanes, large pipes to take the gas away, and development in places it simply should not be allowed.

There are particular concerns over the risk to our precious water resources in Kent, which, according to the Environmet Agency, is already seriously water-stressed. Kent’s underlying geology is characterised by a high density of faults and there is no way in which any operator or regulator could anticipate the re-activation of a geological fault, which would lead to serious risk of an escape of contaminants into underground water resources. Once triggered, there is little that can be done to control or alleviate that contamination.

We want to be certain that a rigorous, evidence-led debate has taken place and a strong regulatory and inspection environment has been put in place before the UK Government commits to shale gas exploitation, so that ‘potential’ environmental damage doesn’t become a reality.