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The End of Endocrine Disrupters, Oestrogenic Compounds and Plastics Disposal down the Drain.

October 27th, 2017 in News by emily


The seas are becoming choked by microscopic plastics, and the rivers a soup of pharmacological wastes that are invisible in that they do not draw attention to their presence by fish kills or alter the colour of the water, these pollutions are stealthy in that their damaging presence is not easily recognised. For twenty five years the issues of oestrogens and their mimics, endocrine disrupting materials have been in the sights of those concerned for the environment, human health and the future of all species within the developed world where this set of concerns are mostly based.

Human males are, as fish have proved, losing their fertility, endocrine disrupters are accepted as a major cause in the case of fish, human sperm count decline is likely a more complex issue but finding such materials in drinking water demonstrates the need to act.

One major concerns is that the writing is on the wall for Britain and its position within Europe, Brexit has taken over with a strangely convoluted discussions of trade deals and legal regularisation of European regulation becoming British Law. The Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales and Northern Ireland Environment Agency are wondering what they will need to police the environment: the government has said that cosmetics are to cease allowing microbeads in their formulation but that will not outlaw the use of ceramics (plastics) as free movement lubricants of shaving gels and haemorrhoid creams, two of thousands of products. The agencies have not got their acts together regarding the removal of pharmacological materials that make up the threats to both wildlife and the wellbeing of humankind. The lack of leadership in the UK is very plain as the government sees these issues as expensive to tackle. Manufacturing industry is steering the boat rather than the ministerial consensus that we might expect or at least hope for. Amongst these manufacturers the pharmacological companies are in the premier league with seats at the top table. The allowance of the manufacturers to ban microbeads was easy for them to agree with government as ceramic (Plastic and glass/clay) micro-platelets are even better than balls.


UK Parliamentary Backbench Environment Committee Report on Microbeads outlined their findings below (Published in 2016)

‘’microbeads in cosmetics

24 August 2016

Cosmetic companies should be banned from using plastic microbeads in bathroom products – like exfoliating scrubs, toothpaste and shaving gel – because of the marine pollution they are causing, the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee has demanded.

Report findings

Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP:

“Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans, lakes and estuaries, harming marine life and entering the food chain. The microbeads in scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes are an avoidable part of this plastic pollution problem. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.

Cosmetic companies’ voluntary approach to phasing out plastic microbeads simply won’t wash. We need a full legal ban, preferably at an international level as pollution does not respect borders.

If this isn’t possible after our vote to leave the EU, then the Government should introduce a national ban. The best way to reduce this pollution is to prevent plastic being flushed into the sea in the first place.”

Microplastic pollution comes from the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic waste, small synthetic fibres from clothing and the microbeads used in cosmetics and other products. It is estimated that as much as 86 tonnes of microplastics is released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone.

National ban

Most large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020. However, the Committee found that a legislative ban would have advantages for consumers and the industry in terms of consistency, universality and confidence. The Committee would like to see a national ban on microbeads by the end of 2017.


The industry is failing to label products containing microbeads clearly, the report points out. If the Government fails to introduce a ban, the Committee is calling on it to introduce a clear labelling scheme for microbeads during the transitional period of a voluntary phase out to provide transparency for customers.

Chair’s comment:

“Most people would be aghast to learn that their beauty products are causing this ugly pollution. Cosmetic companies need to come clean and label their products containing plastics clearly.”

Impact on human health and the environment

Microplastic pollution is potentially more environmentally damaging than larger pieces of plastic because it is more likely to be eaten by wildlife and microplastics have a greater surface area with which to transfer chemicals to and from the marine environment. Relatively little research has been done so far either on potential impacts to marine life, human health or the marine economy.

Chair’s comment

“Shockingly, a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastic. More research is needed on the impact of microplastic consumption on human health.”

Microbeads are a significant and avoidable part of the problem. However, the wider issue of microplastic pollution cannot be set aside once microbeads have been dealt with. Between 80,000 & 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment across Europe per year. Opportunities to capture microplastics through enhanced washing machine filtration systems and improved waste and water sewage treatment processes must also be explored.

Marine plastic debris

Persistent marine plastic debris are rapidly accumulating in the world’s oceans. Most of the world’s ocean plastics by weight are large pieces of debris (e.g. fishing equipment, bottles and plastic bags). However, the dominant type of debris by quantity is microplastics.

It is estimated that 15-51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the ocean. Microplastics have been reported at the sea surface and on shorelines worldwide. They are also present in remote locations including deep sea sediments and in arctic ice.                                                                                                                                                    ‘’

EU research into plastics has included work on four rivers across Europe:

‘The number of plastic particles in the Dalålven River were sampled with a Manta net used as a sieve to sample 5000 litres of water pumped up from the river since sampling with the manta net directly in the water was not possible due to the unsuitable location. On average only 4.5 micro-particles per m3 have been calculated for the Dalålven River. Estimates based on results from the project show that even this relatively clean river still transports about 50 billion micro-plastic particles annually. The fact that this river has the smallest number of particles in comparison with the other rivers in the survey is the result of small numbers of people that live within the Dalålven River basin (250,000). It seems though, that despite this low population density, plastics are still abundantly found in this river. One explanation could be that recreation, especially sport fishing, is well developed in this river basin.

The highest number of micro-plastic litter particles, 2 trillion micro-plastic particles are transported annually by the River Danube to the Black Sea. One of the possible reasons for such a high number of particles could be the weather conditions during the sampling period. Because of a thunderstorm in the Siret basin, the Danube carried temporarily a lot of litter resulting from the plastic litter being washed from the floodplains into the river and carried further downstream. Another reason could be the fact that the Danube River basin contains a population of 81 million of people.

In the Rhine and the Po the number of transported litter particles lies between the loadings of the Dalålven and the Danube. The amount of particles sampled varied daily, depending on the local conditions. The maximum values found for the rivers do show a similar pattern as the rivers overall; Danube has the highest values, followed by Po, Rhine and the Dalålven River.

In weight terms, the River Rhine transports 20 to 30 tonnes of plastic litter per year to the North Sea. The Danube is estimated to transport 500 tonnes of plastic litter to the Black Sea annually. The Po transports about 120 tonnes of plastic litter per year to the Mediterranean Sea.

The types of litter found in rivers varies. The most diverse samples were collected in the River Danube, covering 38 different categories. In the River Po 30 different categories of litter were found, and in the River Rhine 33 different categories were present on both sampling occasions. The analysis of daily variability of litter types shows that in all the daily samples across all rivers, artificial polymer material (plastic) was nearly always the most abundant material. Other materials found in rivers are rubber (with the biggest share in the Rhine), chemicals (paraffin wax), with the biggest share in the Danube river), metal (Po river), cloth/textile (Rhine), glass and ceramics, processed and worked wood, and paper and cardboard. Daily variation of particles quantity (number and mass) was small in the Po and Rhine. The variation was much larger in the Danube and Rhine, where few high number and weight scores were measured. Micro-particles were placed into five categories, modified from the “Guidance on Monitoring of marine Litter in European Seas” list. These categories were: fragments, pellets, foams, fibres and other. Fragments were the most abundant category in the Po and the Rhine. Fibres were most abundant in the Danube and Dalålven rivers. However it is worth noting that in the Dalålven River the number of fibres were 8.5 times lower than in the Danube. For small particle categorisation, the Master List of Categories of Litter Items from the Guidance on Monitoring of marine Litter in European Seas was also used, where artificial polymer material (plastic) items are categorized in 124 different categories. Categories of Shopping bags food containers, sheets and industrial packaging and plastic pieces in size 0 – 2.5 cm were present in all rivers, in surface and suspension samples. Technical Group Marine Litter Riverine Input of Marine Litter bottles, were present only in surface samples but not in suspension samples. On the other hand only 3 categories (plastic bag, collective role, strapping bands, masking tape) were seen only in suspension samples, but not in surface. Chemical identification with Near Infrared Spectrometry of small particles (5-25 mm) shows that polyethylene is the most common material among plastic material found in all rivers. Other materials often present are polystyrene, polyamide (Nylon), polypropylene, and polyvinylchloride. Chemical composition of micro-plastic shows mainly polyethylene and polypropylene particles. Overall plastic represented more than 97 % of all small (5-25 mm) and micro-waste in rivers.’



Andrew Johnson (Principal scientist with the Natural Environment Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Wallingford), and Richard Darton (Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford) in ‘Removing oestrogenic compounds from sewage effluent’ state that:

‘The problem of micro-organic contaminants in sewage effluent has been brought to light by the issue of endocrine (hormonal) disruption. An oestrogenic response in caged male fish exposed to sewage effluent was first reported in 1994, when it was found that such fish had very high plasma vitellogenin concentrations. Vitellogenin is an oestrogen-responsive egg yolk protein usually found only in female fish. Its presence in males suggested exposure to oestrogenic chemicals. Subsequent studies reported the presence of intersex roach, with oocytes in the testes, downstream of many domestic sewage effluents in the UK.

Testis of intersex roach showing presence of ova within the testicular tissue on the left. These photos are reproduced by kind permission of Dr Susan Jobling, Brunel University. The occurrence of testicular oocytes can be induced in the laboratory by exposure to oestrogenic chemicals, suggesting that these roach had been exposed to similar chemicals in the wild. Initially suspicion fell on industrially derived oestrogen mimics, such as nonylphenol, a breakdown product of a range of commonly used non-ionic surfactants, but more recently concern has focused on natural steroid oestrogens such as 17β-oestradiol (E2) and oestrone (E1), which are excreted by all humans, together with the contraceptive pill active ingredient 17α-ethinyloestradiol (EE2). In general activated sludge plants seem to remove around 70-88% of E2, 50-75% of E1 and 50-85% of EE2 from the waste stream. This performance still leaves 1-10 ng/L (parts per trillion) of these natural and synthetic hormones in the effluent. Even this astonishingly small quantity can have a drastic impact on the endocrine system of sensitive fish species if the waste water is not sufficiently and quickly diluted. Studies have shown that the birth control chemical, EE2, is the most important endocrine disrupter for the aquatic environment. Because of its societal benefits, no one is arguing that this pharmaceutical product be banned, but these observations have raised concerns with environmental regulators all over Europe. The UK is particularly vulnerable with its high population densities and small rivers, and the UK Environment Agency is contemplating measures to regulate the release of these steroid hormones.

Many of the endocrine disrupting compounds identified have hydrophobic characteristics. This means that in a mixture of water and organic liquid such as octanol, partitioning will favour the organic phase. The particles of live and dead bacteria which make up activated sludge possess the qualities of an organic matrix and consequently can absorb and 4 concentrate these hydrophobic compounds. We know that the industrially derived nonylphenol will concentrate in sludge and survive anaerobic digestion, and this may also be true of EE2.

So whilst it may have no ecotoxicological significance, the disposal of sewage sludge to land is another potential route for endocrine disrupters to enter the environment. Now that the risk of EE2 to the aquatic environment has been identified, researchers are becoming aware that a proportion of the many pharmaceuticals and personal health care products we all use in our daily lives is also escaping into the aquatic environment. A recent survey of streams across America detected a bewildering range of small quantities of such compounds, like antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicines, and heart drugs. It is unclear whether any of these compounds will have a deleterious effect on the health of the environment, but the issue needs to be considered. All the more reason to improve the efficiency with which activated sludge plants remove micro-organic contaminants.’

Click here to read the Position Paper Microplastics

Note: This research paper goes on and outlines a set of methodologies that might be implemented in existing sewage treatment works to remove the offending compounds. The water industry though are looking for the costs of treatment to be paid for, the cost is not an issue that government or industry wish to discuss.


The Trust is working to eradicate all pollutions to rivers and waterways, the protection of groundwater and researching methods for removing or preventing such events. The issues of endocrine disrupter and plastics are vital areas for our time and expertise.

Author: emily

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