In three Pennsylvania river basins, boy fish have girl fish parts. They also have distasteful looking black blotches and open sores. Shockingly, this is nothing new. It’s happening in a lot of places.
This stomach-turning state of affairs has experts deeply concerned. The culprits behind this phenomenon are called estrogenic compounds. Scientists wish we’d do something about them — soon — because the problem seems to be growing.
The latest salvo in this battle comes from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). A report issued by USGS this summer finds that the prevalence of immature female eggs in the testes of male smallmouth bass in Pennsylvania’s Delaware, Susquehanna, and Ohio drainage areas “correlated with the percent of agricultural land use in the watershed above a site.”
Researchers believe high amounts of estrogenic compounds are washing down from farmlands into our waterways. They accumulate there, jacking up the estrogen content of the water, silt and sediment, causing biological changes to fish eggs and young adult fish.
An Accidental Discovery of a Weird, Disturbing Problem
USGS biologist Vicki Blazer was studying fish kills in the Potomac River watershed in 2003 when she found repeated instances of male fish carrying female egg cells. She wasn’t looking for it, but there it was.
A variety of organizations, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Delaware River Basin Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the USGS began independent investigations in 2006 and continued through 2012.
During this period, Blazer and her colleagues studied smallmouth bass, white sucker and redhorse sucker in Pennsylvania. They found the same odd intersex fish problem, often coupled with disease indicators such as “red raised, eroded or mucoid lesions, black spot, leeches, [and] cloudy eyes” on external body surfaces and “small white spots, grubs, pale coloration, eroded, frayed” gills.
What surprised Blazer was the scope of the problem in the waters of Pennsylvania. “I did not expect to find it quite as widespread,” she told The Washington Post. Researchers also identified the intersex fish phenomenon in 2009 in the Columbia, Colorado and Mississippi river basins.
“Fish are a good indicator of the health of the aquatic environment,” Blazer told Philly.com. “They are always in it.” How bad can our surface water be if it’s actually changing gender indicators in fish? Pretty damn bad is a safe guess.
What We Put On the Land is Ending Up in the Water
Where are these chemicals in our waterways coming from? Some undoubtedly enter the water in human sewage after being ingested in the form of pharmaceuticals like hormone replacements and contraceptive medication. However, scientists say about 90 percent of estrogenic compounds come from modern agricultural practices.
It appears the sheer volume of industrialized agriculture exponentially increases the estrogenic compounds being carried by stormwater into our rivers. It’s not that farmers are feeding these chemicals to their livestock, says the study.
Rather, it comes from veterinary pharmaceuticals, pesticides and herbicides. It also comes from the high volume of urine and manure excreted by livestock which naturally contain these compounds.
“Human waste is at least treated,” University of California, San Francisco professor Tracey Woodruff, who specializes in reproductive science, told Al Jazeera America. “Cows don’t use toilets, and a lactating pregnant cow, for example, produces a lot of estrogen.”
In addition to all that livestock pee and poop, we have to worry about fertilizer as well. Incredibly high volumes of manure end up spread over millions of acres of crops. Rain falls over all this manure and, once again, whatever’s in that poop ends up in our rivers. It’s giving male fish some female features and is apparently causing disease.
“We do think some of the same feminization chemicals are causing immunosuppression,” Blazer told Al Jazeera America. “And that disease is having an effect on the [fish] population.”
Is Industrialized Farming Just Too Much of a Load on the Environment?
Concern over the environmental effects of industrialized agriculture and factory farming is nothing new. This latest report is simply additional evidence that we’re ruining our planet. We strive to produce ever greater quantities of meat and dairy, which ends up feeding only a percentage of the world’s population.
Add to this the deleterious effects of the harmful chemicals and millions of gallons of water used on the crops intended to feed all these meat-producing animals. Industrial agriculture cannot continue to grow without exacting a greater and greater price on the environment. Is it worth it?
Can we perhaps grow fewer crops and feed them to people instead of to livestock? Turning from a meat to a plant-based diet may hold the key to this problem, but it’s a change that many millions will need to embrace to make a difference.
Will we do it before circumstances force us to? Time will tell.
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