Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Passaic River and broken babies

The shower washes the garden mud off my feet; the reddish-brown water looks like blood as it swirls down the drain. Within a few hours, the millions of microbes washed off my feet will be killed by chlorine, and flow as sewage effluent into the Passaic River, the same river made famous by its ability to ignite. Sewage effluent, fortunately, does not burn as easily as the rest of the river.

The effluent flows as clear, odorless, nutrient-filled water (or so the sewage authorities assert). A few years ago, near the tail end of a long drought here on the East Coast, about 90% of the water in the Passaic River flowing past Newark was treated sewage.

I regularly kayak by the discharge pipe of the Livingston Sewage Authority. The pipe rests near the origin of the Passaic River, really just a stream at his point, my paddle often scraping the rocky bottom. Livingston has gobs of money. The effluent coming out of the pipe smells surprisingly fresh, not what one expects from a poop-pipe. Not odorless either.

I know the smell of chlorine. I know the smell of esters. As an erstwhile organoleptologist, I assert that the Livingston Sewage Authority contains (at least) water, chlorine, and a nose-friendly ester. Either that or the wealthy have poop that smells like perfume.

Man-made esters frighten me a bit. They should frighten you, too.

Carp thrive in this part of the river. Painted turtles reproduce, making baby turtles with the right number of body parts--one head, four legs, one tail. Deer drink from the river, and an occasional hawk soars overhead as we paddle upstream. Maybe the discharged effluent is safe.

Still, I fear the estery smell; while I do not wish to wade in buckets of bacteria, the smell of sweet volatile organic compounds makes me edgy. I imagine my plastic oar melting as I near the effluent waterfall.

When I was younger, I loved the smell of organic liquids. I sniffed gasoline, not to get high, but just for the smell. The varied chemicals stored in the garage got sniffed for the sheer joy of the odor.

I remember giant wafers designed to be loaded in a green, translucent cane filled with water, designed to inject a sweet-smelling herbicide directly into dandelions. Groundskeepers had a high rate of leukemia; we just did not know that yet.

The mosquito man would drive his truck through the neighborhood shooting his white, dense cloud of sweetness--we'd hop on our bicycles and get lost in the fog. VOC junkies.

Sperm counts are dropping. More and more boys are born with incompletely formed penises. No one is sure why, but phthalates have been implicated. Di-n-butyl phthalate flows with the effluent of treated sewge. It smells sweetish, like an ester.

Di-n-butyl phthalate makes plastics more pliable--it is a "plasticizer." Male reproductive organs may become more plastic as well.

While "fringe" ecologists have been screaming about endocrine disrupters for years, the plastics industry continues to maintain that there is no hard evidence linking phthalates to human hypospadias.

Still, enough evidence exists to raise the eyebrows of the Food and Drug Agency.
Everyone is exposed to small levels of DEHP [Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate] in everyday life. However, some individuals can be exposed to high levels of DEHP through certain medical procedures. DEHP can leach out of plastic medical devices into solutions that come in contact with the plastic. The amount of DEHP that will leach out depends on the temperature, the lipid content of the liquid, and the duration of contact with the plastic. Seriously ill individuals often require more than one of these procedures, thus exposing them to even higher levels of DEHP.

Exposure to DEHP has produced a range of adverse effects in laboratory animals, but of greatest concern are effects on the development of the male reproductive system and production of normal sperm in young animals. We have not received reports of these adverse events in humans, but there have been no studies to rule them out. However, in view of the available animal data, precautions should be taken to limit the exposure of the developing male to DEHP.

David W. Feigal, Jr., MD, MPH, "FDA Public Health Notification: PVC Devices Containing the Plasticizer, "FDA, July, 2002DEHP,

I discussed this with the chair of the department of pediatrics. The FDA warning interested him, but fixing it costs money.

Glass is too expensive. Glass breaks, too dangerous on a pediatric hospital floor. A shrug.

I have raised the issue with other doctors. More shrugs. People shrug a lot these days. I shrug a lot. What can we do? A shrug acknowledges a problem as unfixable. Dismissive.

Changes in the sexual morphology of fish exposed to sewage effluent have led some scientists to conjecture that humans also live in a "sea of oestrogens" and that the apparent increases in the incidence of certain reproductive conditions may be due to exposure to chemicals in the environment. The so called Sharpe-Skakkebaek hypothesis offered a possible common cause and toxicological mechanism for abnormalities in men and boys,that is, increased exposure to oestrogen in utero may interfere with the multiplication of fetal Sertoli cells, resulting in hormonally mediated developmental effects and, after puberty, reduced quality of semen. It was postulated that synthetic chemicals in the environment are the prime source of the excessive oestrogenic stimulation, with exposure through food and water being the primary route.

"Endocrine disrupters and human health," Editorial, British Medical Journal, 2001;323:1317-1318 (8 December).

Repairing a hypospadias is not difficult if the child has not yet been circumcised. The estrogen-like effects on a developing fetal brain are not known. Shrug.

Phthalates are less of a concern than shit. Poop smells like, well, poop. Phthalates smell like esters, vaguely reassuring. Refreshing.

Who is going to worry about a river that used to catch on fire anyway? Shrug.

Photo from the South Bergenite here.


Bill Farren said...

I think it was David Orr that said we are living in an age of permissive chemistry.
I've read somewhere that the proportion of chemicals that nature uses compared to the amount that man has created is dramatic. (Somehow I remember reading 20 something to 100,000. Is this correct? And I guess part of it has to do with defining what a chemical is.)

erinnash said...

I wish more of us were wondering how man-made compounds were affecting human development.

How many cases of cancer need to occur within your family before you really start to wonder?

I identify with many of your earlier posts concerning cancer.
I am originally from a farming community in Iowa. My father grew up on a farm with 9 siblings. This summer, his sister, my aunt, died from breast cancer. His mother is a breast cancer survivor. My father had to have his prostrate removed and endure rounds of radiation therapy - he is recovering from prostrate cancer. Four of his brothers have had prostrate cancer as well.

Is it bad genes..or just bad chemicals...
What is coursing through my body...and the bodies of my babies?

On a side note, you may want to check out this paper as well:

Atrazine and frog hermaphroditism...yummy.

Barry Bachenheimer said...

Great post. Chilling. I think the "shrug" you wrote about describes the environmental response in this country. Sure, we can use CFL bulbs and recylce newspaper (easy) but no one is making a stand to clean up our air, water, products. By the time it is personal and you have a stake (like you or a member of your family getting cancer) it is too late.

Thinking about our previously discussed topic of delayed gratification, how do we get our students and parents to care?

Fake Plastic Fish said...

Beautiful and frightening post. I found your blog through a Google alert for "plastic." The problem is huge. I am personally tackling in in my own small way through significantly reducing my own plastic consumption and plastic waste and spreading the word through my blog, Fake Plastic Fish. (

Personal changes might not seem like much in comparison with the problems we face, but they can make a difference in helping people to care and see that their actions can be part of the problem or the solution.

And yes, I pray I never have to have a blood transfusion. I wrote to the Red Cross about their PVC blood bags which contain DEHP and blogged about it:

The shrug was deafening.

doyle said...


The Precautionary Principle has gotten the smackdown treatment. As a culture, we accept tremendous damage for things we want (automobiles, anyone?).

As an aside, it's a snow day, a wonderful day to mull about education in general--I love your blog, and may be borrowing from it (with attribution, of course) this weekend.


The farmers have paid a high price--much of what passes for fertilizer is heavy metal waste.

I raised the atrazine link two years ago in class, but my sophomores (who have little exposure to frogs other than the ones in dissecting pans) just shrugged. A definitive study on cell phones and brain tumors might get them going, though.

I suspect that the genetics/environmental exposure dichotomy is intimately entwined. A lot of what we are exposed to wasn't an issue 3 generations ago,

Congrats on your new baby! Hope you're getting a little sleep.


Thanks for the words. I really don't know how we can get anyone buy into delayed gratification in a culture that finds unsustainable debt a necessary evil to maintain "the economy"--whatever that means.

I do believe that children, like all of us, prefer to be happy than unhappy. I also believe that true happiness involves some delayed gratification at times. If I didn't think I could get children to see the link, I'd quit teaching.

Once I figure out how to make that happen, I'll let you know. =)


Interesting site you have!

We can all make a difference, but it is exceedingly difficult to be 100% plastic free if you want to remain part of the dominant culture.

I'll take a deeper look at your site over the weekend.

Fake Plastic Fish said...

True, none of us can be entirely plastic-free. But we sure can avoid a lot of new plastic. I avoid buying new durable plastic items as much as I can, utilizing resources such as Freecycle, Craigslist, etc. And am hoping that in the mean time, manufacturers are becoming more and more responsive to pressure from groups urging them to limit the amounts of toxic materials and to use more and more recycled content.

And we certainly can avoid almost all disposable plastic. The one area where it is unavoidable is in the hospital. But even there, we can encourage less wanton waste than currently goes on. And certainly products made from healthier materials.

bill farren said...

Thanks for the link. Hmm. We're not the most precautionary species, are we. How to get humans to change? There's some interesting thinking going on at thwink dot org. Looks at this change thing from a different angle.

KPd. said...

19 people knocked on doors in the freezing rain to talk with neighbors about the Precautionary Principle tonight. =)

doyle said...


You may not know how much I gush with pride every time I talk about you and the other critter who share about half our genetic material.

Love you!


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog a couple of days ago and am reading all entries. This particular entry is very close to me as I am a scientist studying phthalates and male reproductive development. Turns out, the data for phthalate endocrine disruption in rats is very strong (at high dose levels), but there is no inhibition of testosterone production (the mechanism behind the adverse effects) in mice exposed to phthalates. We are currently in the process of publishing data showing humans are like mice, not rats.

This isn't to say chemicals are not contributing to human reproductive problems. For phthalate exposure however, human fetal nads appear to be "safe".

BTW, I love the blog!


doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for the kind words.

I'd love to see your paper(s) once they're out. I practiced peds long enough to see the rate of hypospadias go up for whatever reason, and I hope we find the cause.

(Heck, even soy with its phytoestrogens gives me the, um, willies).

Thanks for dropping by--it's a rare treat to get a research scientist.

Anonymous said...

Hi Doyle,

The problems with linking any natural (like phytoestrogens) or man-made chemical to human reproductive disease are the issues of dose and the inherent lack of cause/effect relationships with association studies. Toxicology studies are done in animals at dose levels usually orders of magnitude greater than human exposure. Epidemiology studies generally don't have the great statistical power and demonstrate association.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to determining the environmental component to hypospadias and undescended testis is that the component is likely a mixture of many different chemical and nutritional exposures. Each of these at low dose would act together to increase disease (along with genetics).

For hypospadias and undescended testis (both fetal androgen-driven developmental processes), the only consistent risk factor is being born small for gestational age. How growth restriction causes these problems is unknown. Perhaps poor mitochondrial function in the poorly growing fetus reduces testosterone production... at least that's my stake in the ground.

I'll send you the paper when it is published and a couple of more too.

If the public funding for my lab ever dries up, one consideration I've entertained is to become a high school science teacher. For me, your blog is a window into this world, as well as just thought-provoking reading.