Tapped out

Hormones in drinking water

Is estrogen-laced tap water super-charging girls into women and then killing them off with cancer? Don’t ask the EPA.

Is estrogen-laced tap water super-charging girls into women and then killing them off with cancer? Don’t ask the EPA.

It’s no longer the fluoride we have to worry about—in a twist on the Dr. Strangelove paradigm, there is growing concern over hormones in the food we eat and the water we drink, particularly estrogen and the effects it may be having on females, possibly inducing early-onset puberty as well as adding to the rate of breast cancer.

A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute’s Center for Environmental Oncology reported that fish caught in the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers near Pittsburgh contained significant traces of substances that mimicked the actions of estrogen. ScienceDaily.com explains that the substances found in the fish were most likely from raw, untreated sewage that contained both estrogens—from the disposal of birth control pills, for example, and xeno-estrogens, materials that act like estrogens in the body. Following the discovery of estrogen and xeno-estrogens in the water, the scientists working on the study began to check the potential health risks of these compounds. When extracts from the fish were exposed to estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells, the fish extracts bound themselves to the cells and activated estrogen receptors causing the cancer cells to multiply.

While this study raises concern over just how much estrogen and xeno-estrogens are in our drinking water, it does not offer evidence on the effects the introduction of foreign hormones will have on a developing adolescent. To be sure, estrogen is a very small molecule and is difficult to filter from any water. But nobody knows how much is actually in there.

Dr. Harry Huneycutt of Reno is quick to point out that xeno-estrogen is a vague term. “Saying estrogen-like is like saying world-like,” the private practitioner says. Huneycutt also noted the use of birth control pills among adolescent girls, showing that outside estrogen can be safely incorporated into the body. However, Dr. Huneycutt believes that more studies need to be done to fully understand exactly what is in the water and how harmful it may be.

At this point, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t have set regulations for estrogen in drinking water. John Kobza, the lab director for Reno’s Sierra Environmental Monitoring, says “The water you drink has to meet primary and secondary drinking water standard … this includes everything from metals to radioactivity and asbestos.” But as for estrogen, Kobza says, “I don’t know of anything that’s proven [estrogen is] in high concentration.” This could explain why the EPA does not list estrogen in any of their regulations.

The National Cancer Institute’s website offers the example of diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen that was given to women from 1938 to 1971 to help with pregnancy complications. In later years, DES was shown to have a link to an increased risk of breast cancer for the daughters of the women who were prescribed the hormone.

So, while the current studies of estrogen and xeno-estrogens in our drinking water have been inconclusive as to the potential effects on our physiology, further study could turn this developing urban legend into dangerous fact, or just more slices of baloney.