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With funding scant, intersex fish in Potomac remains mystery

On the Potomac, the number is 82 percent.

Tests on Potomac water found it is contaminated with all kinds of chemicals that might be "endocrine disruptors," similar enough to natural hormones that they could confuse an animal's -- or a person's -- system of chemical signals. Some of them come into the river with treated sewage: human hormones, birth-control pills, chemicals in antibacterial soap.

Others wash off farm fields, such as the herbicide atrazine, the pesticide dieldrin, and cow and chicken hormones excreted in manure.

Blazer, the Geological Survey researcher, has a suspicion: that some of these pollutants accumulate in the tiny yolk sacs that are a baby fish's first food. If that's true, then male fish might be taking in chemicals similar to female hormones at a crucial time in their development.

But Blazer has not been able to test hundreds of pieces of dissected fish in the freezer to see whether pollutants, or mixtures of them, show up in crucial organs.

"It's $400 a tissue" to analyze them, she said, and so only about a third have been submitted for testing.

The Senate appropriated money specifically for this work in fiscal 2008, but it was dropped in conference committee, Geological Survey officials said. Last fiscal year, $400,000 was budgeted by the Geological Survey for analyzing intersex fish in the Potomac. One-third of that money went to Blazer; two-thirds went to other parts of the country, where scientists were doing research on similar problems with intersex fish in laboratories.

"To imply that the money is not being spent on issues related to the Potomac would be inaccurate," said Patti Bright, an official at the Geological Survey.

But Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said the Potomac has been shortchanged. He is pushing for a doubling in Blazer's funding for the next fiscal year.

"It's kind of a Catch-22. Until we can have the resources to determine where it's coming from and how dangerous it is, it kind of stays on the back of the shelf," Moran said.

Until the mystery of the fish is solved, what -- if anything -- this problem means for people seems certain to remain uncertain.

Water from the Potomac is filtered and used for drinking in the District, Arlington County and Falls Church, and it provides at least some of the water in areas served by Fairfax Water, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Frederick County water utility. These agencies say their treatment methods remove many potential endocrine disruptors. But a study of District tap water has found minute traces of some, including atrazine.

Water agencies say they don't think their customers need to filter their tap water.

"At Fairfax Water, we already have that filter in place for you" with treatment at the utility's plant, spokeswoman Jeanne Bailey said. "I drink our water every day." No home water filter has been certified to remove endocrine disruptors, but a spokesman for a national certifying organization has said reverse-osmosis and activated-carbon filters seem "promising."

One problem, water utilities say, is that the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't told them which chemicals might be endocrine disruptors or how much of them is enough to cause effects in humans.

The EPA has been charged with doing this since 1996. But the agency says it was slowed by the difficulty of the science: These chemicals are not as simple as poisons, since they might be harmful in very tiny quantities and their effects on a human body might not show up for months or years.

This fall, the EPA took a key step, describing for the first time how chemicals should be tested for endocrine-disrupting effects. But it might be two years before the first results come back.


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