The amount of pesticides, hormones and other chemicals in Alberta’s rivers are causing scientists to fear not only for fish populations, but also for the future of human health.
University of Calgary researcher Hamid Habibi says chemicals in Alberta's waterways are affecting fish reproduction and he is concerned humans could be affected in the same way. photo by Tamara Neely
Studies conducted on rivers in the MD of Foothills and across southern Alberta show chemical runoff from residential lawns, agriculture operations and cattle feedlots as well as chemicals that pass through municipal water treatment plants are causing reproductive problems in fish.
Researchers at the Universities of Calgary and Lethbridge are conducting studies to look at the chemical impacts on Alberta waterways. “There is clear evidence that there are chemical pollutants leaching into the water system and they adversely affect animal health and they could potentially affect human health,” said Hamid Habibi, a professor in the U of C department of Biological Sciences.
Habibi has been sampling water from various rivers in Alberta, including from the Bow River at the Policeman’s Flats area near Heritage Pointe northeast of Okotoks.
Habibi said the problem is many chemicals mimic a hormone naturally occurring in humans and animals and are
able to enter the body and effect functions.
According to his studies, pesticide, antibiotics, hormones, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in the rivers affect fish’s systems because they act like estrogen.
Since estrogen governs various physical functions the chemicals are able to be active in the animal and the high levels of estrogen are causing alarming problems.
The effects on fish he has documented are low sperm count, the feminization of fish, meaning an abnormally high amount of female fish offspring and fetuses developing abnormal sex organs, such as small penises and testes.
“These chemicals can interfere with normal hormone activity either by mimicking hormones and over-stimulating them or by blocking them,” said Habibi.
Habibi’s research has focused on fish, but his concern is humans could also experience the same problems.
“We do see this in animals, but it has to be studied in humans,” said Habibi. “A lot of factors that affect sexual development in animals are the same in humans. It’s plausible that this could happen in humans.
“If a human fetus is exposed to too much estrogen it causes abnormality.”
Runoff from agriculture industry
Habibi’s research has shown that pesticides, antibiotics and other drugs are downstream from agricultural
operations despite Provincial regulations in place to prevent runoff.
“Lots of pharmaceuticals end up in the environment because feedlots’ cattle are given antibiotics and other drugs,” said Habibi. “The cattle’s urine and feces ends up in the water, rain washes things into the river.”
Rainwater and irrigation also washes pesticides and herbicides from cropland into the river.
“We have definitive evidence showing if you go to riverbanks along farms these chemicals are present,” said Habibi. “Once into the river they cause harmful effects on animal populations and if it is a drinking water source for another community it could potentially cause a problem (for humans). The big problem is that water treatment plants are not capable of removing them.”
Habibi said Provincial guidelines for preventing runoff need to be tightened, but more research needs to be done to provide direction.
Karen Yakimishyn, a livestock environmental engineer for Alberta Agriculture, said there are no numbers on how little or how much runoff may be entering waterways from feedlots in the province, but the regulations are in place to ensure the agricultural industry is sustainable.
“It’s about ensuring our industry is just. One of the reasons for doing that is we have to be environmentally sound, because if not, we wouldn’t have an industry,” said Yakimishyn.
Some of the restrictions cover how manure is stored, methods of catching runoff, for example catch basins, and
the amount of fresh water applied to the feedlot property, which is intended to restrict the amount of nutrients from manure which could possibly run off.
“Feedlots have to have runoff control systems,” said Yakimishyn. “We want to protect surface water bodies and
One method of dealing with the manure produced at feedlots is to apply it to crops, but Monica Langfield, the
general manager of farming and natural resources for Western Feedlots, said it is unlikely manure applied to
fields is washed into waterways.
“On our land we follow regulations strictly. I don’t believe any nutrients end up in the waterways. The regulations are there for a reason and that’s why we follow them,” said Langfield.
Once per year Western Feedlots conducts tests on their catch basins and to ensure manure is not leeching
into ponds or the water wells of surrounding neighbours.
“We water test on an annual basis,” said Langfield. “We test for human consumption and cattle consumption (standards) – so all kinds of E. coli, bacteria and that kind of thing.”
They don’t test for antibiotics, however, Langfield said little manure goes into the catch basin.
“We have had an environmental impact strategy in place since 1993. The goal is to contain all runoff from Western Feedlots,” said Langfield.
Chemicals passing through sewage treatment plants
Habibi determined that the greatest change that needs to happen is municipalities need to change their water and
sewage treatment plants.
Many chemicals are passing through the sewage treatment processes and affecting fish, he said.
He is involved with a new research project that has been awarded more than $10 million by the federal government to look at ways of improving water treatment plants.
Habibi said four years ago the Province agreed to match the grant, but the research has not been able to proceed because they have not been awarded the funding.
The project is important, he said, because studies have shown as municipalities flush their treated effluent back into the into the water system antibiotics, female hormones and more pharmaceuticals are being released with it.
He explained that pharmaceuticals ingested by humans pass through urine into the sewage system and are not removed before entering the waterways.
“The body is not able to completely remove it and degrade it, a good example is birth control pills — the estrogen ends up in urine. It’s not broken down,” said Habibi.
“One of the most important steps is to improve treatment plants so they can remove these contaminants.”
Habibi is concerned about the effects on the body when multiple chemicals are in the water. The problem is not just pesticide, or antibiotics it’s all the other chemicals they are finding in the water.
“We’re dealing with thousands of chemicals (from a variety of industries and sources). This is the tip of an
iceberg and we’ve started looking at this seriously,” said Habibi.
Ed Spohr, site manager for the water and sewage treatment plants for Okotoks, confirmed that estrogen is not removed during treatment processing of sewage.
“There would have to be a chemical treatment process — it couldn’t be filtered out. Most places don’t do that,” said Spohr.
Habibi’s research is showing pesticides also act like estrogen.
The Town of Okotoks has been working to limit the amount of pesticides that enter the rivers through controlling
the amount they spray on Town land and by changing the requirements for storm sewers.
“We’re trying to reduce our use of insecticides and fertilizers to minimize the loading of these chemicals into the river,” said Dave Robertson, operations manager for the Town.
“Many of them are hazardous to health — humans’ and animals’ — if they’re not managed properly. They run
off your property into the storm sewer and eventually into the river and ecosystem where the fish pick it up — it’s a whole chain of events.”
Robertson said in an effort to reduce the Town’s chemical use they no longer spray herbicide on dandelions and each year they receive calls from residents complaining about dandelion blooms.
“We try to manage (dandelions) by trimming more frequently — that’s part of the plan to reduce chemical use,”
said Robertson. “With chemicals such as Killex and 2,4-D you have to be aware — where do you think it’s going to go?”
Robertson said if there is heavy rainfall after residents spray chemicals on their lawns, those chemicals will be washed into the storm water system.
Forty per cent of the neighbourhoods have the old style of storm water drainage which feeds directly into the
The other 60 per cent of neighbourhoods have been developed with the new system, which collects storm water in a pond before flowing into the river.
Lars Brinkmann, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge, said homeowners need to realize while scientists
are trying to define all the harmful effects of pesticides and other chemicals, homeowners are spraying a variety
of chemicals that are washed into the storm water drainage.
“People don’t realize where the water running into their street sewer goes. Out of sight, out of mind. They think it’s gone,” said Brinkmann. “These issues are being discussed by scientists, but when you talk to homeowners they say, ‘My neighbour is doing it, too. Why shouldn’t I do it?’”
Brinkmann said they have identified specific effects of specific chemicals on fish and plant life, but the question of how harmful all the chemicals mixing like a soup in the river is still unknown.
When compounded chemicals are ingested by fish or humans, for example, the effect could be much worse than scientists currently know and more research needs to be done.
Published in the Okotoks Western Wheel August 19, 2009