Profiles: Chemicals in the water

The chemical structure for nonylphenol.

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Read more from the Center’s investigation on endocrine disruptors in the environment.

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Concerns grow about hormone-disrupting chemicals in Wisconsin waters The state lags behind Minnesota in testing its waters.

Water Watch Wisconsin

Water Watch Wisconsin, a joint project of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television, is examining the quality and supply of Wisconsin’s water. Story ideas? Email

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Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s research on endocrine disruptors

Two potential endocrine disruptors found in Minnesota waters.

Nonylphenol is a breakdown product of a chemical family used in industrial laundry detergents, in crop spraying, as a stabilizer in plastic food packaging, in cosmetics and many other products. It is “highly toxic” to fish and aquatic organisms. It has been found “in human breast milk, blood and urine and is associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents,” according to the EPA, which has concerns about risks to people, especially children, and plans to phase it out. It is toxic to aquatic organisms at milligrams per liter; the U.S. demand was estimated at 380 million pounds in 2010. Nonylphenol was found in most of the wastewater treatment plant effluent Minnesota tested, about half of the downstream samples and a third of the upstream samples. More troubling, it often appeared at a higher concentration in sediments than water, whether upstream or down — suggesting that it may accumulate rather than breaking down.

Bisphenol A (BPA), invented as an estrogen replacement but used in plastics and epoxy resins, with a U.S. volume of 2.4 billion pounds in 2007, was commonly found. Brown trout given very low doses had delayed ovulation and lower-quality sperm. It has been associated with intersex fish. One major concern is that a brief low-dose exposure at certain sensitive developmental stages may cause effects much later in an animal’s life cycle. Another is that exposed organisms’ offspring may be affected. It may affect organisms at parts per trillion, and last year releases exceeded 1 million pounds. Most people appear to get their biggest BPA exposures through food packaging, EPA says. In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey sampled untreated groundwater used as drinking water, focusing on areas susceptible to contamination, and found BPA one fifth of the time. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is studying potential human health effects including “behavior, obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, development of prostate, breast and uterine cancer, asthma, cardiovascular diseases and transgenerational or epigenetic effects.”

One thought on “Profiles: Chemicals in the water

  1. Ten years ago, I spent several months gathering over 1,000 published studies about the health risks of PCBs. I grouped them by the human organ or system impacted, or the type of effect caused, and posted them on a public website. Endocrine disruption was just one of many effects. Here is the link:

    The website is badly out of date now, but it still shows how much was already known about the toxicity of PCBs as early as the 1930s and 1950s.

    By the 1960s enough was known to convince most rational people that PCB exposures should be strictly avoided and environmental spills should be cleaned up before they spread.

    Unfortunately, important information about PCB health effects was kept from the public, and even from government health and regulatory agencies. (Much of it was only known to some of the main corporations producing and using PCBs.)

    Many more worthwhile PCB health studies were conducted in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000’s, with interesting results, but they didn’t change the already established fact that PCB exposures should be avoided.

    By the early 1970s, when state and federal governments finally caught up and realized they were dealing with a serious health threat, their actions to protect public health from PCBs were crippled for another 30+ years by corporate lobbying and obstruction.

    This kind of obstructionism is STILL HAPPENING even today, with a multitude of old and new toxic chemicals.

    The FDA prevents public exposure to new drugs until adequate safety tests have been conducted, but corporations and individuals are allowed to “dose” hundreds of millions of people with tens of thousands of different industrial or commercial chemicals with little or no safety testing.

    For several decades, environmentalists have been trying to get everyone to see how serious this problem is, but the corporate lobby is too powerful.