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Fish And Hormones

A study of treated wastewater is the first to report an environmental risk for the birth-control drug levonorgestrel

by Sarah Everts
March 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 12

When rainbow trout were exposed to treated sewage effluent from Umeå, Sweden, the birth-control drug levonorgestrel accumulated in the fishes' blood plasma to levels that were four times higher than the human therapeutic concentration. The study, led by Jerker Fick of Umeå University and D. G. Joakim Larsson of the University of Gothenburg, is the first to report an environmental risk for levonorgestrel (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es903440m). Levonorgestrel is a progesterone derivative often used in combination with estrogen or estrogen derivatives in birth control pills. Synthetic estrogen is known to feminize fish and lead to population collapse. As for levonorgestrel, previous laboratory research has shown that fathead minnows exposed to the same concentration as in the treated Umeå water had fertility problems. One caveat is that sewage effluent becomes diluted as it spreads away from a treatment plant, the researchers note, giving fish in the environment a lower dose. But because other residual drugs in the environment target the same progesterone receptor as levonorgestrel, there are still grounds to be concerned about the environmental effects of the hormone, they report.


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