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Endocrine Active Chemicals/Wastewater Treatment Plant

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Relative contributions of selected endocrine active chemicals and pharmaceuticals from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sources to Minnesota surface waters – Implications for aquatic communities

A joint project among the U.S. Geological Survey, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, St. Cloud State University, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN, and the University of Colorado, Boulder, CO.


Dye being applied to the river.
Greater than 500 wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) discharge effluent to surface waters throughout Minnesota.  WWTP effluent contains chemicals used in private homes, industry, and agriculture including endocrine-active chemicals (EACs) and pharmaceuticals which are chemicals that interfere with natural physiological processes. EACs affect the regulation of fish endocrine systems and may mimic or block the function of natural hormones. EACs and pharmaceuticals have been detected in surface waters worldwide and in Minnesota.  In addition, bottom sediments are an important environmental compartment for storage of these contaminants that can provide a continual source to aquatic organisms that live in close proximity to bottom sediments or depend on organisms that reside in the bottom sediments.  Chemical and biological data suggest that concentrations of EACs and pharmaceuticals in Minnesota WWTPs and receiving streams greatly vary, and that some WWTPs are discharging biologically significant levels of these chemicals.  In addition, data indicate that there are other sources of EACs and pharmaceuticals to aquatic systems other than WWTPs. While research and monitoring efforts have identified EACs and pharmaceuticals in WWTP effluent and receiving streams, and endocrine disruption responses in fish downstream of those effluents, the number of WWTPs sampled among the various studies represents a small fraction (less than 5 percent) of the WWTPs in Minnesota and thus may not be representative of all WWTPs in Minnesota.  There is evidence that there are sources of EACs and pharmaceuticals to aquatic ecosystems other than WWTP effluent; however, little is known about additional sources. In addition, there is compelling evidence of accumulation of EACs and pharmaceuticals in the bottom sediments of streams and lakes but few sites have been monitored. 

Information on the concentrations EACs and pharmaceuticals in water and bottom sediments are needed to determine relative contributions of contaminants from WWTP effluent and upstream sources and to estimate potential organism exposure. The USGS and the MPCA in collaboration with SCSU, UST, and the University of Colorado collaborated on this study to determine the relative contributions of EACs and pharmaceuticals in water samples collected from the effluents from 25 WWTPs and at sites upstream and downstream of WWTP effluent discharge in Minnesota during September-November 2009. The second objective is to measure concentrations of EACs and pharmaceuticals in bottom sediments collected upstream and downstream of effluent discharges, and the third objective is to estimate estrogenicty of water samples using an in-vitro bioassay, and concentrations of plasma vitellogenin and other sex characteristics of caged fish from onsite exposure experiments. This study provides information to local, state, and federal agencies that manage water resources needed to evaluate potential effects of EACs and pharmaceuticals on aquatic organisms and the relative contributions of these contaminants from WWTP effluent.

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  • Report describing data collection, analytical methods, and quality assurance is complete.

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