No easy answers for outdoor connections
Scientist sounds alarm over pollution of
By Deborah Weisberg
Pittsburgh – Although recreational use of western Pennsyl-vania
rivers has never been higher, a University of Pittsburgh study of
water quality is raising red flags.
Fish caught near storm sewer overflow outlets in the Allegheny,
Monongahela and Ohio rivers near Downtown Pittsburgh contained
levels of estrogenic chemicals associated with some types of breast
cancers, and ovarian and testicular cancers, according to Conrad
Dan Volz, of the Pitt Cancer Institute’s Center for Environmental
Oncology, who began his study two years ago.
The chemicals include pharmaceutical estrogen, such as that
contained in birth control and female hormone-replacement pills,
and the pseudo-estrogen found in many more products, from garden
herbicides to plasticides to asphalt road topping.
Volz and his team used tissue extracted from 21 channel catfish
to spur the growth of human cancer cells in their laboratory, and
got half the response they did with pure female estrogen – a result
Volz called “incredible.” Fish further up the Allegheny
River near Kittanning grew half the cells as the Downtown
Although the rivers supply millions of western Pennsylvanians
with drinking water and yield fish to a growing number of anglers,
the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is not required to test
water for estrogens.
It tests for mercury and other pollutants, and the Pennsylvania
Fish & Boat Commission has long advised people against eating
catfish from the Ohio and Monongahela rivers, and to limit
consumption of Allegheny River catfish to one meal a month.
Fish from rivers in other regions, including the Potomac in
Maryland, have suffered the impact of estrogenic chemicals. Males
have developed female characteristics, such as undeveloped eggs in
their testes. Volz found eggs in some of the male fish he studied
and said he had difficulty identifying the gender of many of the
”Pittsburgh has done a remarkable job of cleaning its water, but
we still have a tremendous problem because we have more combined
sewer overflows than any city in the United States,” said Volz.
“Even with less than an inch of rain, all the gates open
and belch untreated sewage into the rivers.”
”We don’t know the actual risk from drinking the water or eating
the fish,” said Volz, “but the presence of estrogenic
substances appears to increase the risk of some sorts of
It’s a wake-up call for those who are connected to the river,
said Volz. “People have to realize that the modern
chemicals we use everyday – detergents, glue, cosmetics, hair care
products – have estrogenic properties. They don’t all get destroyed
by waste water treatment, so we ingest the same chemicals again in
our drinking water.”
Volz said he is advising the federal government to add
estrogenic chemicals to the list of chemicals they already test for
in drinking water. Volz will continue his fish sampling on the
rivers, expanding to new locations suspected of having high
concentrations of estrogenic chemicals, and including more species
from walleyes to muskies in his study.
”The top level of the food chain always has the most of these
chemicals,” he said.
Veteran river angler Paul Caruso donated some of the catfish for
Volz’s study and will help him harvest more. “It’s got to
be terrible down there,” he said at the start of the study in 2005.
“But as long as they bite, I don’t care.”