Male fertility fears over pollution in water supply

Oestrogen in rivers makes fish change sex and poses potential risk to humans

A A A

Half of all the male fish in lowland rivers are changing sex as a result of pollution, alarming new official research suggests. The findings raise serious questions as to whether the pollution is getting into drinking water and affecting human fertility.

Half of all the male fish in lowland rivers are changing sex as a result of pollution, alarming new official research suggests. The findings raise serious questions as to whether the pollution is getting into drinking water and affecting human fertility.

The research – to be published by the Environment Agency this month – shows that male fish are developing female characteristics in rivers all over the country. In some stretches all the male fish have been feminised.

Scientists conducting the research blame a particularly powerful form of oestrogen in urine from the contraceptive pill, which is flushed through sewage works into the rivers. Some fear that the "exquisitely potent" chemical may be contaminating part of the one third of all of the country's drinking water that is taken from rivers.

The water industry and the agency strongly deny that this situation – revealed by a joint investigation by The Independent on Sunday and BBC TV's Countryfile – could damage health. But environmentalists fear that the fertility of some men could be affected by years of drinking the water. Sperm counts have been falling dramatically in Britain over the past half-century. Yesterday Peter Ainsworth, the shadow environment secretary, said: "Danger to human fertility cannot be ruled out" and called for an urgent programme of research on the threat. The agency said that it was taking the pollution "very seriously" and would unveil an action programme later this month.

The research, financed by the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the official Natural Environment Research Council, has examined roach from 10 rivers over the past five years. They found feminised "intersex" males in all of them – the rivers Lea in Hertfordshire (from which London takes much of its drinking water), Blackwater in Essex, Arun in West Sussex, Avon in Bristol, Rea in Shropshire, Wreake in Leicestershire, Nene in the East Midlands, Ouse in North Yorkshire and Aire and Calder in West Yorkshire.

It found that, on average, just under 50 per cent of the male fish had developed eggs in their testes, and/or female reproductive ducts – a finding they believe is likely to be typical of roach and other species of fish all over the country. In stretches of the Aire and Nene all the male fish were affected in this way: even in relatively unpolluted waters 7 to 8 per cent were affected.

The fish did not change back after being put into clean water, suggesting that the changes were permanent. About one tenth of male fish were sterile, and about another quarter had damaged sperm.

The research suggests that the main culprit is ethanol oestradiol, a synthetic oestrogen used in the contraceptive pill which the scientists say can feminise fish at levels of as low as one part per billion. Conventional sewage treatment is ineffective at removing it from water.

Professor Charles Tyler of Exeter University, one of the leaders of the research, says that it is "so exquisitely potent that some of the very concentrations where we are seeing effects on fish are below the detection limit that is presently in place for testing our drinking water. So we cannot be sure that some of these compounds, albeit at very low concentrations, aren't getting into our drinking water".

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories