Alarm bells about river

Like a bizarre script written for a sci-fi movie, cocktails of hormone-altering chemicals discovered in the Red Deer River are feminizing fish, a shocking new study has found.

Like a bizarre script written for a sci-fi movie, cocktails of hormone-altering chemicals discovered in the Red Deer River are feminizing fish, a shocking new study has found.

This gender-bending phenomenon is cause for alarm. Male fish are being found with female eggs in their testes. The possible effects on humans drinking the same water must be made a government priority.

The study, conducted by two University of Calgary professors, rightfully expresses an urgency in addressing this new crisis.

Not only are fish victims in this potential disaster, humans may also be at risk. While the study concludes it’s not known if these chemical levels are high enough to hurt humans quenching their thirsts with river waters, there is a possible risk these cocktails could increase cancer rates or developmental abnormalities.

It’s been an ongoing battle to maintain the health of the precious Red Deer River — from addressing low oxygen levels and critically low flow levels, to keeping its pollution level at a minimum by upgrading municipal water treatment facilities and coping with an increasing demand for its waters from municipal, industrial and agricultural sectors.

Now the river faces a new dilemma as outlined in the study by U of C professors Hamid Habibi and Lee Jackson, and published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

In the waters, they found more than two dozen organic contaminants, many with hormone-like activity commonly found in wastewaters or rivers impacted by human and agricultural hormone therapy drugs. Those included synthetic estrogens (birth control pills and hormone therapy drugs), a chemical used to make plastics, and synthetic steroid byproducts of agricultural runoff and cattle farming.

These chemicals have been discovered in waters in other parts of the world, but it’s new here. And the study says most wastewater treatment plants in Alberta don’t get rid of many of these chemicals.

“I think human health should be paramount,” said Habibi. “We can either wait and deal with the disaster a few years down the road, or we can be proactive and try to study this more to provide a solution.”

Other provincial waterways studied, such as the Oldman River, were found to be in the same state as the Red Deer.

At the heart of the study was an inconspicuous minnow called the longnose dace, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and an important forage minnow for larger predatory fish.

In some locations studied in the Red Deer River, female minnows accounted for as much as 90 per cent of the population; the norm is 55 to 60 per cent. Males showed elevated levels of a protein normally high only in the blood of females. Other males were found with female eggs in their testes.

The results of the study demand a closer look. It must be asked: “What is the message the fish are telling us?” People are drinking the same water that is habitat to the minnows showing bent genders.

This study must be addressed by the provincial government on a priority basis. More data must be gathered and more waterways must be examined. The more comprehensive and aggressive the studies, the better the information available upon which to act. And the government must act quickly.

Chemical contamination has a slow effect that’s easy to forget or swept under the carpet. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” warned Habibi. “I think it’s a challenge for us that we have to meet and we can’t meet it alone at the university without resources, without investment from government, from public sector to do this.”

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.

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