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Down the Drain

Down the Drain

Water pollution caused by cosmetic chemicals, cleaning supplies and plastics
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sources of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals in San Francisco Bay

95 Percent of Wastewater Samples Show Widespread Use of Chemicals

Advances in technology allow an unprecedented look at chemical contaminants in water bodies throughout the United States. In 2002, the first nationwide study of man-made chemicals and hormones in 139 streams revealed that 80 percent of streams tested were contaminated (Kolpin 2002). Several of the chemicals examined are known or suspected of disrupting the hormone systems of animals and people. Of these, only a small fraction have been regulated at all, much less tested for toxicity, persistence in the environment, or other harmful characteristics, such as hormone disruption. Some of the same unregulated, widely-used, hormone-disrupting chemicals have been detected at trace levels in the San Francisco Bay (Oros 2002).

Fish and other aquatic life inhabiting waters containing man-made hormone-disrupting chemicals may develop reproductive and other health disorders. For example, male fish with immature eggs in their testes have been documented with increasing frequency throughout the U.S. (Pait 2002; Goodbred 2007). Damage to the reproductive health of vulnerable fish populations may result in detrimental consequences to local fisheries and aquatic ecosystems; in addition, there is concern that people could become further exposed to hormone-disrupting chemicals by eating contaminated fish (Houghton 2007).

To identify some of the sources of these hormone-disrupting chemicals, Environmental Working Group (EWG) and East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) researchers analyzed samples of wastewater from residential, commercial, and industrial sites in the San Francisco Bay Area. 18 of 19 wastewater samples examined contained at least 1 of 3 unregulated, widely-used hormone disruptors – phthalates, bisphenol A, and triclosan; 2 samples contained all 3 substances. Despite sophisticated wastewater treatment, these chemicals were detected in treated waters discharged into the Bay.


Analysis of 19 wastewater samples for 3 hormone-disrupting substances reveals widespread contamination.


While wastewater treatment is extremely effective in removing biodegradable food and human waste, it was never designed to address this broad spectrum of unregulated chemical pollution. Advances in wastewater treatment may reduce some types of pollution, but new chemicals are introduced continuously into the marketplace. Expensive potential improvements to wastewater treatment facilities would result in higher consumer water rates, while only removing a fraction of these contaminants of concern. Instead, it is critical to look at more cost-effective ways to protect our waterways through reducing chemical pollution at the source – before it ever reaches the treatment plant or the Bay.

This study represents a first look at specific sources of hormone-disrupting chemical contamination from residential, commercial, and industrial sources that can enter San Francisco Bay. By tracing these chemicals to particular sites – including residential areas, a nail salon, laundries, a pet wash, medical centers, and industrial facilities – we can identify simple pollution prevention strategies.

Choices you make at home and on the job to reduce your exposure to hormone disruptors can reduce the impact of these chemicals on wildlife in San Francisco Bay. For example, by making informed choices when you buy everyday products, from shampoo and toothpaste to laundry detergent and even canned food, you can help protect the environment, without breaking the bank. This report provides detailed findings from our study, and presents tips to help you reduce your use of hormone-disrupting chemicals and better protect the Bay.

Of course, ultimately, we need to fix our system of chemical regulations. The law establishing U.S. regulation of chemicals was created over three decades ago, and has not been revised since, despite significant advances in our understanding of the impacts of a variety of chemicals to ecological and human health. Of particular relevance, U.S. chemical regulations were created before the body of scientific evidence on hormone-disrupting chemicals was established and, therefore, are not designed to identify and act against substances with these properties. In the absence of federal action, local and state leaders have brought special attention to the critical ecological and public health problem of hormone disruption caused by man-made chemicals. EWG and EBMUD are participating in national stakeholder initiatives to advance chemical policy in the U.S.

Hormone Disruptors and Human Health

Hormone-disrupting chemicals are not just an ecological concern. Studies of ordinary people show that our own bodies typically are contaminated with low levels of phthalates, bisphenol A, and triclosan (Calafat 2005; CDC 2005; Wolff 2007). The sources of this pollution in people include many ordinary consumer products, such as cosmetics, canned foods, and "antibacterial" soaps and cleaning agents. Recent research indicates that chemicals that interfere with the hormone system can cause adverse health effects in cells at levels as low as 1 part per trillion (Wozniak 2005).

Already, epidemiological evidence suggests that people may be experiencing health effects caused by exposures to hormone-disrupting chemicals. Adult men with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies are more likely to show signs of hormonal disturbance, including reduced sperm concentration and motility, increased damage to sperm DNA, and altered hormone levels (Duty 2003, 2004, 2005; Hauser 2007). Baby boys exposed to higher levels of phthalates in the womb or in breast milk are more likely to display reproductive system abnormalities (Swan 2005). And women with polycystic ovarian disorder, a leading cause of female infertility, or those who suffer recurrent miscarriages, are more likely to have higher levels of bisphenol A in their blood (Sugiura-Ogasawara 2005; Takeuchi 2006). Though no epidemiological studies of triclosan are available, a recent animal study suggests that this substance may be a potent disruptor of the thyroid system (Veldhoen 2006).

These studies indicate that taking action now to reduce your exposures to hormone-disrupting chemicals may benefit the health of you and your family, as well as the health of the surrounding environment.


Hormone-disrupting chemicals are found in many consumer products and contaminate wastewater from a variety of residential, commercial, and industrial sites.



Hormone-disrupting Chemical Wastewater Samples Contaminated Consumer Products Health Effects
Phthalates ·Homes
·Nail salon
·Laundries
·Pet wash
·Medical  centers
·Manufacturing
·Treated
 wastewater
·Perfumes & personal care products containing "fragrance"
·Nail polish
·Flexible & PVC/vinyl plastic, including food wrap, building materials, toys, IV tubing, blood & fluid storage bags
·Adhesives, inks, pill coatings, detergents
·Many others
Phthalate exposure is linked to male reproductive system problems including feminization of baby boys (Swan 2005), altered hormone levels in baby boys and men (Duty 2005; Main 2006), reduced sperm concentration and motility and increased sperm DNA damage in men (Duty 2003, 2004; Hauser 2007).
Bisphenol A
(BPA)
·Industrial  laundry
·Pharmaceutical  & Paper  products  manufacturing
·Treated  wastewater
·Polycarbonate plastic including hard plastic water & water cooler bottles, hard plastic baby bottles, plastic silverware, Lexan products, and many items labeled plastic #7 or "PC"
·Linings of food and beverage cans
·Dental sealants
BPA exposure is linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome, the most common form of infertility in the U.S. (Takeuchi 2006), as well as to recurrent miscarriage and reduced levels of an essential sex hormone in men (Hanaoka 2002; Sugiura-Ogasawara 2005). Over 100 animal studies reveal a wide array of adverse health effects caused by low dose exposures in utero (Myers 2006).
Triclosan ·Laundries
·Veterinary &  Medical centers
·Plastic bag  manufacturing
·Treated  wastewater
·"Antibacterial" hand soap, toothpaste, personal care products
·"Antibacterial" detergents & cleaning products
·"Antibacterial" plastic & foam items including shoe insoles, plastic cutting boards
Triclosan causes thyroid disruption in frogs at low levels found in many streams (Veldhoen 2006); human and frog thyroid signaling systems are nearly identical. In tap water and in lakes and streams, triclosan forms chemicals linked to cancer and other health problems, and known to accumulate in animals (Adolfsson-Erici 2002, Lindstrom 2002; Balmer 2004; Lores 2005; Fiss 2007).