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Antidepressants also affect fish. According to professors Vance Trudeau and Tom Moon of the University of Ottawa, male goldfish exposed to fluoxetine lose interest in sex, ignoring signs female goldfish exhibit indicating they're ready to mate. Similarly, according to Norris's work, even 25 nanograms per liter of fluoxetine—Missoula effluent tests conducted by Lynch in March 2010 found 100 nanograms per liter—have been shown to put fish at a distinct disadvantage. They have a hard time responding to predators. "If the fish is on fluoxetine, it's slower," Norris says, adding that predatory fish that eat smaller fish also begin acting differently. "They started showing funny behaviors."
Norris says as humans individually and collectively alter the chemical composition of our environment, the environment will continue to shape us. "It's important to be aware that the fish endocrine system works just like our endocrine system. And so, anything we say is true for fish is true for us. When we look at the mammalian fetus, it's much, much, much more sensitive to all of these chemicals than are adult humans. Fish are sort of the tip of the iceberg."
This could be expensive
Fish around Missoula's wastewater treatment plant look healthy enough, Starr Sullivan says from inside his tidy office, where the smell is not nearly as pungent.
Sullivan displays a picture of two men in yellow vests and hardhats. They're taking a break from an excavation project near the banks of the Clark Fork River and holding up a fat silver trout they found in an underground channel, just below the surface. The trout was trying to get into the wastewater plant. Fish flock to the plant, he says. Wastewater piped into the river is warm; fish like that. Plus, red worms, and midges, little winged bugs that resemble mosquitoes, hatch in sediments at the bottom of the plant's ultraviolet light banks, providing a tasty lure. "This is like the Golden Corral for those fish," Sullivan says.
Sullivan jokes. He also admits that he, like water experts across the country, is grappling with a very new set of questions. The effect of pharmaceuticals in our water is "a tough issue," he says. "The industry is concerned about it."
Wastewater treatment systems capable of more effectively filtering out manmade chemicals are now online. As with evaluating water for chemical compounds, which runs about $1,000 each test, such "reverse osmosis" systems are extremely expensive. An investment like that could be a tough if not impossible sell.
"It's kind of problematic," Sullivan says. "You either get people to quit taking pharmaceuticals, or you build hugely expensive treatment systems for it."
Despite the financial challenges, increased regulation could be coming down the pike. Congress and the EPA have for years debated launching a more comprehensive study of an array of chemicals thought to trigger endocrine disruption. For the first time, in 2009, the agency proposed implementing safe drinking water standards for pharmaceuticals—specifically, erythromycin, and hormones such as estradiol, and estrone, which is present in Missoula's treated wastewater. Still, that effort will require backing from Congress along with a significant financial commitment to become a reality, says R. Thomas Zoeller, a biologist who specializes in endocrinology and serves on the EPA's Science Advisory Board, which provides technical expertise to the agency.
"We need to give them the tools and the budget to do that kind of work," he says. "What we are talking about are chemicals that are in every baby born in this country."
Zoeller is troubled that neither chemical manufacturers nor regulators have incorporated the tools necessary to grasp to how endocrine-disrupting compounds are affecting the environment. "Modern science has simply been left out of the regulatory apparatus," he says. "We can't continue to do that."
Congress in 2010 failed to pass legislation that would have mandated greater scrutiny of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Another attempt is now underway. In February, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Enhancement Act of 2011, which would require the EPA to test at least 100 compounds that have been found in drinking water within four years, to evaluate how they may alter hormone systems. The legislation would also require the EPA to develop guidelines within two years for updating regular testing protocols.
Mountain Water general manager Arvid Hiller says more science is a good thing. "Always you should let the science first dictate what makes sense," he says. And he adds that water is just one route of many that chemicals might take into the human body. "It makes you wonder when you eat that head of lettuce, how much atrazine is in it," he says.
Implementing stronger water safety standards is a good place to start greater protections of human health, Zoeller says. "Without an adequate safety measurement or regulatory tool, we make ourselves vulnerable. We should not wait around...This is not a trivial issue."