Male Fish Found to Have Female Parts
Male black bass and some sunfish in North Carolina rivers and streams are developing eggs in their testes, which can cause reproductive problems and potentially threaten populations, according to unpublished research.
The research adds to growing evidence that exposure to estrogen compounds is feminizing male fish across the U.S. and suggests that North Carolina fish might be particularly at risk.
“It’s a very interesting study and certainly adds to our understanding of what’s potentially going on in our rivers and with the intersex fish,” said Vicki Blazer, a U.S. Geological Survey fish biologist who was not involved in the study.
North Carolina State University researchers tested 20 streams and rivers throughout North Carolina during the 2012 spawning season for contaminants known to disrupt endocrine systems, such as industrial chemicals and pesticides. They also tested black bass—largemouth and smallmouth bass—and sunfish in the rivers for “intersex” characteristics, looking for eggs in the testes of males.
More than 60 percent of the 81 black bass tested were intersex, while 10 percent of the 185 sunfish were intersex. They detected 43 percent of the 135 contaminants they were looking for throughout the state. Crystal Lee Pow, a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University who helped lead the work, said they are still analyzing differences between waterways so aren’t yet disclosing the impacted rivers.
The results are worrisome. In past studies, male fish with eggs have had reduced fertility and sperm production. In addition, male fish are critical for the survival of developing black bass and sunfish.
“Males guard the nest, create spawning nests for young and guard fertilized eggs,” Lee Pow said. “ Males are crucial for hatching success and their male behavior could be altered by exposure to contaminants and the presence of the intersex condition.”
The research was in part spurred by a U.S. Geological Survey study in 2009 that showed intersex male fish in nine U.S. river basins and found that the Pee Dee River basin—which spans North Carolina and South Carolina—had the highest rate of intersex fish (80 percent).
The suspected culprits of the sex changes are endocrine disrupting compounds. This includes hormones, industrial chemicals and pesticides that are or mimic estrogen hormones. These compounds enter rivers and streams via permitted effluents, stormwater and agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment plants, where excreted birth control and natural estrogens pass through relatively un-altered.
“There are also a lot of concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina,” Lee Pow said, adding that previous research at North Carolina State found that waste from pigs, which is held in lagoons, can run off into streams after it is applied to land. “The [pig] waste is chock-full of estrogens,” she said.
It’s unclear why the black bass had such a higher intersex rate, but it’s an important finding that shows not all species are impacted the same, said Dana Kolpin, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist.
Blazer, who has been investigating intersex fish in the Potomac River basin and Chesapeake Bay drainage area, said Lee Pow’s findings are similar to hers—bass seem more prone to intersex characteristics.
Bass seem more prone to becoming intersex than other fish. Photo credit: Alexandre Estanislau
“We’ve compared bass to white suckers, brown bullhead and we rarely see intersex in the suckers and bullhead, even at the same sites where we see bass that are intersex,” Blazer said.
Researchers don’t know why the bass are more susceptible, however, it is probably either the timing and location of where they spawn, or something about their physiology that is more sensitive, Blazer said.
Donald Tillitt, a U.S. Geological Survey toxicologist, said he and colleagues dosed adult largemouth bass with a synthetic estrogen found in birth control pills with levels commonly found in the environment and were able to induce intersex fish.
“The dominant idea has been that intersex is instigated in early life exposures as the gonads are developing,” Tillitt said about the unpublished research. “But this suggests they’re still susceptible as adults.”
The presence of intersex black bass in North Carolina was linked to chemicals that are hydrophobic, meaning those that prefer separating from water such as the common contaminant polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
But Blazer cautioned that it is “important for people to understand that what could be inducing intersex at one site might be different than at another site.”
The concern with an impacted reproductive system is the overall fish population and ability to properly reproduce. Blazer said bass are a long-living fish and produce a lot of sperm, so it would take a few years for population impacts to take place.
Susan Massengale, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said in an emailed response that the new study was “useful for understanding what may potentially affect aquatic life,” adding that it would be interesting to know the rivers tested and whether the tested fish had reduced ability to reproduce.
She said “this is one part of a picture that will emerge over time” as research fills in the blanks on the levels of these compounds that impact the fish and how to stop or treat the compounds before they affect species.
Kolpin said, with a growing body of evidence of endocrine disrupting compounds in U.S. waterways impacting fish, there may soon be action in trying to curb the problem.
“The next five years we should gain even more knowledge and eventually I think there will be something done to prevent contaminants getting into these waterways in the first place,” he said. “It’s better to prevent them than trying to treat water after the fact.”
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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