"Intersex" inside the Beltway

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If you've ever shaken your head over news coming out of the nation's capital, and muttered "It must be something in the drinking water there", it turns out you may have been more correct than you knew.

The Associated Press reports:

Scientists say abnormal "intersex" fish, with both male and female characteristics, have been discovered in the Potomac River and its tributaries across the Capitol Region, raising questions about how contaminants are affecting millions of people who drink tap water there.

"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 filters river water for residents to drink in the District of Columbia, Arlington, Va., and Falls Church, Va.


But the AP hastens to reassure its readers,
So far, there is no evidence that tap water from the Potomac is unsafe to drink, according to Jacobus and officials at other area utilities.

Humans should be less susceptible to pollutants than fish because of their larger bodies and different hormone systems. And unlike fish, their bodies are not constantly exposed to the water.


Even if a sudden outbreak of intersex members of Congress seem unlikely, it's still important to view the fish as an early warning alarm. Because, as some people in Irvine know, when it comes to endocrine disruption (the scientific term for the chemical interference with hormones that produces such things as intersex fish), it only takes a little to do a lot.

An article in the August issue of Harper's on the problem of endocrine disruption and atrazine ("among the world's oldest and most effective herbicides-- the aspirin of weedkillers"), features some insights from UCI Professor Bruce Blumberg.

According to Bruce Blumberg, an associate professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine, scientists who study endocrine disruption often see dramatic biological effects when they expose cell cultures to weak chemical concentrations. Curiously, Blumberg says research sponsored by chemical companies rarely detects such effects.

You have to love that Curiously.

But if the corporations making money from the chemicals involved, or potentially involved, in endocrine disruption are curiously unsuccessful when it comes to detecting problems, then surely the EPA is busy protecting both man and fish, right? Well, as the Harper's article explains,

Unlike acute toxins, which can kill an organism outright, endocrine disrupters cause subtle damage, such as reproductive-system abnormalities or conditions that can lead to cancer. Effects seen at very low doses but do not occur at higher doses confound traditional toxicological assay techniques. In 1996, Congress directed the EPA to include endocrine-induction studies as part of its safety screening of licensed chemicals, but a decade later the agency is still trying to develop standards for laboratory tests.

The whole Harper's piece is worth reading, and can be found here. And until the EPA and the water authorities in the Washington D.C. area get a handle on the water problem, be sure to keep an eye on your Congressional rep to see if he or she is turning into a he-and-she.

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