Viruses and bacteria aren’t the only things that can contaminate our groundwater. Chemicals called endocrine disruptors have hit the scene as the newest concern over clean drinking water.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones, like estrogen, and can mess with the body’s reproductive, metabolic and nervous systems, and parts of the body such as the thyroid or reproductive organs. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to certain cancers and reproductive problems.
“Definitely there’s cause for concern about potential health implications for the people who are living in these rural areas who have contaminated well water and are consuming it,” said Angela Bauer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.
Bauer just finished a study that looked at endocrine-disrupting chemicals in Northeast Wisconsin groundwater. She studied counties near Door County that have the same karst geology – meaning there’s little soil to filter groundwater.
“I know that Door County is absolutely affected in the same way in terms of the geologic features of the area that make your area susceptible to these problems,” she said.
Bauer and the other scientists found that water from some local wells had levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are proven to hurt wildlife, and she said that’s probably enough to hurt humans, too.
Here’s how they studied the level of those chemicals in water – the scientists took water samples into a lab and put the samples on a culture of breast cancer cells. The more the cancer cells divided, the more endocrine-disrupting chemicals were in the water.
“We know these cancer cells are very sensitive to estrogenic activity [that can come from endocrine disrupting chemicals],” Bauer said. “If you put something on those cells that can act like estrogen, those cells will start to divide like crazy.”
Endocrine disrupters can get into groundwater a number of ways. Bauer and the other scientists narrowed the pathways down to these three: animal waste, leaky septic systems and synthetic chemicals.
When hormone therapy or contraceptives are given to animals or used by humans, small parts of those chemicals appear in the animal or human waste. If that waste gets into the groundwater, it can spread those chemicals. Synthetic chemicals like pesticides and insecticides often sprayed on crops mimic hormones, too, and can cause the same health problems.
“We definitely know some of [those chemicals] are present in the water table when they’re utilized in rural areas, and those could potentially also be a source of estrogenic activity,” Bauer said.
The next step of Bauer’s research will be narrowing down which chemicals cause the breast cancer cells to multiply.
Even if you take contaminated groundwater out of the picture, it’s hard to avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
“We’re getting exposed to these endocrine-disrupting chemicals from a variety of sources on a daily basis,” Bauer said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says endocrine disruptors often get into the environment as byproducts of manufacturing plastics and chemicals, and can leach out of plastics into food and water. The chemicals can accumulate in fat, so some meat, such as fish from contaminated water, are high in endocrine disruptors.
Although it’s almost impossible to totally avoid exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, the NRDC has the following suggestions:
• Educate yourself about endocrine disruptors, and educate your family and friends.
• Buy organic food whenever possible.
• Avoid using pesticides in your home or yard, or on your pet – use baits or traps instead, keeping your home especially clean to prevent pest infestations.
• Find out if pesticides are used in your child’s school or day care center and campaign for nontoxic alternatives.
• Avoid fatty foods such as cheese and meat whenever possible.
• If you eat fish from lakes, rivers or bays, check with your state to see if they are contaminated.
• Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.
• Do not give young children soft plastic teethers or toys, since these leach potential endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
• Support efforts to get strong government regulation of and increased research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals.