[Pharmwaste] Washington Post Article: Male Bass Across Region Found
to Be Bearing Eggs Pollution Concerns Arise In Drinking-Water Source
dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
Wed Sep 6 09:41:58 EDT 2006
Male Bass Across Region Found to Be Bearing Eggs
Pollution Concerns Arise In Drinking-Water Source
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006; A01
Abnormally developed fish, possessing both male and female
characteristics, have been discovered in the Potomac River in the
District and in tributaries across the region, federal scientists say --
raising alarms that the river is tainted by pollution that drives
hormone systems haywire.
The fish, smallmouth and largemouth bass, are naturally males but for
some reason are developing immature eggs inside their sex organs. Their
discovery at such widely spread sites, including one just upstream from
the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, seems to show that the Potomac's problem with
"intersex" fish extends far beyond the West Virginia stream where they
were first found in 2003.
The cause of the abnormalities is unknown, but scientists suspect a
class of waterborne contaminants that can confuse animals' growth and
reproductive systems. These pollutants are poorly understood, however,
leaving many observers with questions about what the problems in fish
mean for the Potomac and the millions of people who take their tap water
"I don't know, and I don't think anybody knows, the answer to that
question right now: Is the effect in the fish transferable to humans?"
said Thomas Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, which
processes Potomac water to provide drinking water for residents of the
District, Arlington County and Falls Church.
Jacobus, like others at area utilities, said there was no evidence that
tap water taken from the Potomac was unsafe to drink. They said humans
should be far less susceptible to the river's pollution than fish,
because people are not exposed constantly to the water, our hormone
systems work differently, and our larger bodies should require higher
doses of any pollutant to cause problems. As research on the fish
continues, other scientists across the region are trying to determine
whether Potomac water or mud can affect human cells. This research,
including tests at West Virginia University that examine whether cells
react as if estrogen or estrogen mimics are present, has not reached any
The first intersex fish in this area were found three years ago in the
South Branch of the Potomac, a tributary more than 200 miles upstream
from Washington. In 2004, more abnormal bass were discovered in a
section of the upper Potomac near Sharpsburg, Md.
Following up, last fall federal and state researchers caught smallmouth
bass in the Shenandoah River in Virginia and in the Monocacy River and
Conococheague Creek in Maryland. All three tributaries eventually empty
into the Potomac. At the site on the Potomac itself in the District,
there are no smallmouth bass, so the researchers examined largemouth
The results were striking, according to Vicki S. Blazer, a fish
pathologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. More than 80 percent of all
the male smallmouth bass they found were growing eggs, including all of
the fish caught at four of the seven survey sites. The intersex
condition doesn't change the fish's outward appearance but can be
detected under a microscope.
At the site in Washington, seven of 13 male largemouth bass showed some
kind of unusual feminine characteristic. Six of the seven fish tested
positive for a protein used to produce eggs, and three of the seven
contained eggs, Blazer said.
Taken together, Blazer said, the results on both bass species seemed to
indicate that the Potomac watershed has a problem with "endocrine
disruptors," contaminants that interfere with nature's chemical
signaling. In this case, she said, the contaminants might have turned on
bodily processes that normally are only active in female fish.
"What we're seeing now is that it's definitely not a problem just in the
South Branch," she said. "There is this sort of widespread endocrine
disruption in the Potomac, but we don't know still what are the causes."
Pollutants that mimic hormones have emerged as a worldwide concern in
the past decade, blamed for problems in animals as diverse as
alligators, minnows and polar bears. Although scientists say the
research is in its infancy, they have identified a large array of
pollutants that might affect animals, including human estrogen from
processed sewage, animal estrogen from farm manure, some pesticides and
additives to soap.
Blazer said water tests in the upper Potomac have detected low levels of
a few known endocrine disruptors. But she said none of them has been
pinpointed as a cause for the intersex condition, and the problem might
be several pollutants acting in combination.
Also unclear is the effect on the Potomac's bass population. There have
been several bad spawning years in the past decade, scientists said, and
several large die-offs of smallmouth bass in the Shenandoah in recent
years. But neither has been conclusively linked to the intersex problem.
Even less understood -- both in the Potomac and around the world -- is
how these pollutants affect human health.
In 1996, Congress required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to
help answer that question by developing a screening program to identify
which chemicals are endocrine disruptors. Ten years later, the agency
hasn't tested a single chemical, officials said.
Environmental groups have accused the EPA of proceeding too slowly.
Agency officials have defended their efforts by saying the research has
been more complex than expected.
"I would have hoped it would have been faster, but this is a very
difficult program," said Clifford Gabriel, director of the EPA's Office
of Science Coordination and Policy. "We want to make sure we get the
In the area, at least four drinking-water utilities -- the Washington
Aqueduct, Fairfax Water, the Frederick County authority and the
Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and
Prince George's counties -- take water from the Potomac. That has
prompted some environmentalists to worry about problems in tap water, in
light of the intersex problems in fish.
"If they can't tell us what the problem is," said Ed Merrifield,
executive director of a group called Potomac Riverkeeper, "then how can
they tell us that they've taken it out of the water?"
At the four utilities, officials said they felt confident that the
Potomac water was being filtered and cleaned well enough that it posed
no health risk from endocrine disruptors. But Charles M. Murray, general
manager at Fairfax Water, said he wanted more certainty about those
pollutants and their effects.
"The question is: Are we analyzing for the right things?" said Murray,
whose utility serves a large swath of Northern Virginia and gets about
half of its water from the Potomac.
(c) 2006 The Washington Post Company
Deborah L. DeBiasi
Email: dldebiasi at deq.virginia.gov
WEB site address: www.deq.virginia.gov
Virginia Department of Environmental Quality
Office of Water Permit Programs
Industrial Pretreatment/Toxics Management Program
Mail: P.O. Box 10009, Richmond, VA 23240-0009
Location: 629 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219
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