The big environmental news recently in both New Hampshire and Vermont is about a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, the shorthand name is PFOA. Industries that created Teflon, fire retardant clothing, and other treatments applied to principal materials used PFOA in their manufacturing processes. Since its release to the environment, PFOA has settled into the soils and then migrated through soils downward to the aquifers people tap into for their household drinking water. The levels found in recent testing have brought private and public drinking water supplies under scrutiny due to concentrations above both the state and EPA action limits; the limit when people are warned not to drink the water.
PFOA is a chemical that can cause cancer, disrupt the endocrine system, and affect the normal functioning of liver and kidneys if ingested in high enough concentrations. It may have done its job to make slick surfaces and retard flammability but it is not a nice chemical at all when released to the wider environment.
PFOA is just one of the more than 84,000 chemicals that are in use in commerce in the United States. OK, you might ask, how many can hurt people and/or the environment? Well the scary fact is, we do not know. Various estimates are that no one has tested 90 percent of these chemicals for effects on people and the environment. The 200 chemicals tested since 1976, when the ineffective and underfunded federal legislation called TSCA (toxic substance control act) went into effect, led to the removal of only five chemicals from commerce, the last one 20 years ago.
No one is paying attention to the staggering inventory of chemicals currently in use nor the more than 1,000 chemicals added to commerce each year. The effects of these untested chemicals go beyond drinking water and that leads to a recent report that has not made the headlines, at least not as front page news like PFOA.
In October of 2015, US Geologic Survey and the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&W) published a peer reviewed report with the enthralling name "Evidence of estrogenic endocrine disruption in smallmouth and largemouth bass inhabiting Northeast U.S. national wildlife refuge waters: A reconnaissance study." The 19 selected sites were the locations of USF&W Management Areas and included the most comprehensive geographical coverage possible within the northeast from Ohio to Virginia and then all the states up to Maine. Here in Vermont the testing sites were at the mouth of the Mississquoi River. The bottom line of the study is that at these 19 sites, the fish sampled showed signs of being intersex, both male and female in their reproductive organs and their own endocrine systems.
The endocrine system is a network of glands throughout animal bodies. The glands discharge the hormones into the blood and lymph circulation systems that then flow throughout the body. Hormones control body functions such as growth, metabolism, sexual development, and egg and sperm production.
According to the paper, "Intersex males were observed at all 19 sites and the prevalence ranged from 60 percent to 100 percent." Those statistics are of concern standing alone. What makes the results even more concerning is that, according to the paper, "The lowest observed prevalence of 60 percent at one of the Mississquoi sampling stations, was considerably higher than the lowest reported prevalence of intersex for this species of 10–14 percent in the Northeast region with an adequate sample size (Blazer etal. 2007)." At face value, a comparison of these statics means that intersex fish percentages have increased from 14 percent in 2007 to 60 percent in 2015, just eight years.
The chemicals causing intersex fish are coming from natural and synthetic chemicals. Natural levels are not likely to have increased appreciably. The two leading synthetic sources in aquatic ecosystems of estrogenic endocrine disrupting chemicals are from agricultural production, such as animal hormones or manure, and herbicides applied to crop fields. The second major source is the effluent from wastewater treatment facilities.
It is understandable how agricultural wastes and herbicides make their way to water; they enter surface water through run off. There are two possible responses to lessen agricultural EEDC impact on our waters. You can cut down on the shear amount of the additives used to supplement animal feed or kill weeds. You can then improve field management by having a healthy riparian buffer zone between the crop or feedlot and the water that absorbs the pollutants before they get into the water.
Reducing or eliminating the discharges of EEDCs from WWTFs will be harder and more expensive. We engineered our wastewater treatment plants to address the pollutants of the 1950s. Things have changed from those earlier times and our technology is falling behind in dealing with modern pollutants. Some of the EEDC drugs we take pass un-metabolized through us; they then pass untreated through WWTFs.
Things could slip out of control if there is no response on the part of our policy makers. We may face situations where there are no male fish of certain species and five legged frogs become normal occurrences. Ask your Congressional representatives to pass meaningful reform of TSCA.
David Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC has been a protector of the Connecticut River for more than 60 years.