Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

If freaky fish are everywhere, are they still freaky?

Unsettling reports of “intersex” fish surface periodically in newspapers and scientific journals in scattered locations throughout the U.S.  These freakish fish are typically males with immature egg cells in their testes.  Occasionally they are female fish that display male characteristics.

Intersex fish are often found in waters contaminated by synthetic hormone-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, pesticides, personal care products, and more.

Turns out, these occasional reports are just the tip of the iceberg: In the most comprehensive study to date, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists probed 9 major American river basins, documenting widespread occurrence of intersex fish.

Intersex fish phenomenon is widespread

Intersex fish were spotted in nearly a third of sites examined. The USGS found afflicted fish in the Apalachicola, Colorado, Columbia, Mobile, Mississippi, Pee Dee, Rio Grande, and Savannah rivers and their tributaries.

Intersex largemouth bass were particularly prevalent in the Southeast, the USGS said.  USGS scientists found that  91 percent of the largemouth bass in the Pee Dee River in South Carolina showed intersex characteristics.  Some 60 percent of the largemouth bass population in the Apalachicola River in Florida  were intersex, as were half the largemouth bass in Georgia’s Savannah River and the Rio Grande River in Texas.

Researchers found intersex problems in 73 percent of the smallmouth bass in the Mississippi River,  70 percent of smallmouth in Colorado’s Yampa River and 67 percent of smallmouth in the Columbia River in Oregon.

“We were surprised to see such high incidences,” Jo Ellen Hinck, a USGS biologist and the study’s lead author, told Environmental Working Group.  “We’re concerned when we see the majority of fish at a site having this condition. It certainly makes us wonder what the bigger implications may be.”

Hormone-disrupting compounds in treated wastewater and agricultural runoff are suspected of playing a role in the broad prevalence of intersex fish.  Laboratory tests document the development of intersex characteristics in fish exposed to individual hormonally-active chemicals, as well as to common combinations of these chemicals. Perhaps more  disturbing, many of the same chemicals linked to intersex fish are also found in people’s bodies.

Something else to think about when you next pick up your fishing pole – or wait at the fish counter of your local grocery store.

PS – Want to read about intersex frogs?  We have them, too.

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8 Responses to “If freaky fish are everywhere, are they still freaky?”

  1. NPR ran a story on this on 9/16/09 – you can listen to it here:

  2. Miss P says:

    Stories like this are part of the reason I became a vegetarian last year.

  3. John H Drais says:

    Has anyone examined the water in Africa where the young lady with intersex characteristics, who caused such a stir in the althletic realm recently, grew up?

  4. IH says:

    I am troubled by the way the author of this article throws around the work freakish in regards to intersex. People can also be intersex. There is a lot of problematic stigma and shame attached to that physical state, of which is perpetuated by language used in this article.

    • Rebecca Sutton, EWG says:

      Hello IH – Thanks for the comment – you raise an important point. Our concern lies not with the intersex condition itself, but with the fact that the condition is on the rise due to exposure of fish to water pollution created by people. That’s the part that’s “freaky.” I apologize for any offense – it wasn’t intentional – and will be sure to use clearer language in the future.

  5. Susan E. says:

    I remember seeing odd fish at a hatchery when I was 16, or rather, in about 1971 or earlier. I think the tour guide explained that it was “natural” for there to be a certain percentage of deformed fish, or whatever the language was. There were fish with 3 gills, or 2 heads, or 2 tails. I didn’t look any more closely than that. I just remember there were quite a few – – one almost in every batch or 2. It was a large trout hatchery. I believe they just explained that they “made sure the deformed ones didn’t go to stock lakes or rivers.” I think they indicated that it was just a natural phenomenon. Now I have to wonder. I had heard about frogs with these kinds of deformities, and maybe even parthenogenic frogs at that time. Is this “normal” or are fish and reptiles or whatever just early canaries like some of us?

    • Rebecca Sutton, EWG says:

      Hey Susan – Your analogy is perfect – we think intersex fish and frogs may be canaries in the coalmine with respect to the effects of hormone disrupting chemicals on human health. We’re concerned that intersex characteristics may show up with increasing frequency in these animals because they’re exposed to polluted waters containing all sorts of hormone disruptors from our everyday products – cosmetics, cleaning supplies, plastics, etc.

      In people, specific male reproductive system birth defects tied to hormone disrupting chemicals are already on the rise. Instead of ignoring evidence of harm to people or our fish friends, let’s eliminate these chemicals from our products, our bodies, and our rivers, lakes, and oceans.