Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Plastics cause gender change in wildlife, report shows

GENDER-BENDING A third of male fish in the UK are growing female reproductive organs, according to a new survey. And the effects are spreading up the food chain

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Mother Nature is taking over. An extraordinary feminization process has begun to affect wildlife in the UK -- and scientists warn it could ultimately dismantle the evolutionary process that has existed for 3.5 billion years.

A trend first noted in whelks is starting to spread rapidly among other wildlife species in the food chain.

The first national survey of 42 rivers by the UK Environment Agency has just been completed and it found that a third of male fish are growing female reproductive tissues and organs. Effects were most pronounced in younger fish, raising grave implications for future stocks.

Scientists now fear that seals, dolphins, otters, birds such as peregrine falcons and even honey bees are heading toward a unisex existence that would lead to extinction. Blame has fallen on the increasing prevalence of a group of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. These are found in in plastics, food packaging, shampoos and pesticides and accumulate in the environment. They can mimic the female hormone estrogen when ingested.

A reduction in the size of male genitals, a lower sex drive and parts of the testes turning into ovary tissue are among the symptoms. As the effect of the chemicals starts to creep up the food chain, concern will mount over the potential effect on human health amid increasing evidence of falling sperm counts and infertility among men.

Charles Tyler, professor of environmental and molecular fish biology at the University of Exeter in southwest England, who is leading an international team studying the impact of so-called "gender-bending" chemicals, warns that a point where a species can no longer reproduce is a very real concern.

"We have reached a crucial point. Now we are starting to see the effects while only just starting to understand what is happening. This poses a serious threat to species in some areas," Tyler said.

Others studying the phenomenon say the feminization process is a warning from nature that a nightmare is about to unfold.

Pressure will again resume this week on politicians to curb the use of "gender-bending" chemicals. Environmentalists will point to research revealing that honey bees, so vital for the pollination of plants, were found to display a lower sex drive with fewer eggs laid by the queen after exposure to endocrine disruptors.

They also point to recent studies involving bottle-nose dolphins in the North Sea.

Again, the presence of chemicals has been linked to an increase in birth defects, most notable among male specimens, along with more infant deaths which has resulted in an ageing of the population.

So far the UK government has agreed to fund studies into suspicions that the otter's comeback after decades of decline will be hampered by the feminizing effects of the chemicals.

A separate study has just been funded into the dipper, a bird which feeds on invertebrates taken from the rivers.

Tyler is among those who have complained that the huge gap in scientific knowledge over gender-bending pollutants has so far prevented any action in the outlawing of chemicals.

Toxicology expert Andreas Kortenkamp of the University of London's school of pharmacy, believes the government has "grossly underestimated" the chemicals' effects. He believes that current safeguards to protect wildlife are grossly inadequate.

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