Missouri River researcher to discuss how estrogen-like chemicals affect sturgeon

Monday, July 8, 2013 | 7:44 p.m. CDT; updated 8:55 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 10, 2013

COLUMBIA — About 13 years ago, scientists studying fish on the Missouri River noticed something strange: They were pulling pallid and shovelnose sturgeon out of the river that had both male and female reproductive organs.

Sturgeon are an ancient family of bony fish that cruise along river bottoms. The pallid sturgeon is one of three endangered species in the Missouri River, and scientists from various branches of government are working to learn more about what threatens them.

Diana Papoulias, supervisory research fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Columbia Environmental Research Center, will give a talk on her work with pallid and shovelnose sturgeon at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Les Bourgeois Vineyards in Rocheport.

Papoulias’ talk, sponsored by Missouri River Relief, will focus on the extent and distribution of intersex sturgeon on the river. She will also explain some of how chemicals similar to estrogen could affect the fish’s development.

Papoulias has been studying intersex sturgeon in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers since 2000, when she found some at a site on the river south of Columbia. Since then, she and other researchers at the center have been searching for answers in the laboratory and in the field.

Papoulias said they are 18 months into a two-year study on whether tiny amounts of a chemical found in birth control medication will cause sturgeon to develop both male and female reproductive organs.

“These chemicals that we’re talking about, they aren’t easy to pick up in a fish or even easy to pick up in the water,” Papoulias said.

The chemicals are hard to detect because they show up in weak concentrations and are quickly broken down into smaller molecules.

Since January 2012, researchers at the center have been exposing pallid sturgeon to 5 nanograms per liter of ethinyl estradiol, a form of estrogen found in various hormone-altering medications, to see if they can induce intersex development in a controlled environment.

Next spring, they will cut the sturgeon open to see if they can find abnormal sex organs. They will also try to get the fish to reproduce to study any effects on spawning.

The results could be valuable in determining whether this chemical or related chemicals affect sturgeon in the wild. It will provide some laboratory evidence to back up what Papoulias has observed in the field.

In 2008, the USGS worked with the Missouri Department of Conservation to collect wild sturgeon from points in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, including sites near St. Joseph, Kansas City, Columbia, St. Louis and Crystal City. In portions of the river immediately downstream from urban areas, they found higher distributions of intersex sturgeon.

“We see these peaks right below the major cities,” Papoulias said. “It seemed odd that we would see that kind of a distribution because the fish move so much.”

The survey’s studies of sturgeon ecology have provided greater understanding of the fish’s behavior and travel habits. Using telemetry to track the fish throughout the river, they learned that sturgeon do migrate to different parts of the river to spawn, but then they return to familiar territory where a long exposure to contaminants could plausibly occur.

While Papoulias said she cannot provide definitive answers yet on exactly what is happening to the sturgeon and why, she will present the evidence she and other researchers have gathered so far.

Papoulias’ talk is part of a series that has been going on for three years. Once a month, three speakers — one in Kansas City, the second in Rocheport and the third in St. Charles — give free public talks about Missouri River issues.

Steve Schnarr, program manager with Missouri River Relief, helps organize the Big Muddy Speakers Series. Schnarr said the last time one of the speakers talked about chemical contaminants, the subject got a lot of attention online. He said the pages on Missouri River Relief’s website that deal with chemical contaminants consistently get the most page views.

“People are looking for information on what’s going on on this huge river,” Schnarr said. “But there’s not really good information on water quality, especially emerging contaminants.”

Schnarr said endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the effects of which Papoulias focuses on in her sturgeon work, are not easily removed in wastewater treatment or drinking water treatment.

He said he hopes local residents will attend Papoulias’ talk to learn more about where these chemicals are coming from and what they can do to prevent them from making their way to the river. One easy way people can help is to avoid flushing medications or other chemicals down the toilet, he said.

The Big Muddy Speaker Series is hosted by Missouri River Relief, Friends of Big Muddy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. More information about the series can be found at

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Michael Williams July 8, 2013 | 10:51 p.m.

I'll sure be there.

I remember mentioning ethinyl estradiol as a probable sex-changing pollutant to a local attorney over lunch (a decade ago?), plus posting on this topic several times in this place and in the Tribune. Glad to see the reproductive-cycle research is finally being done.

Ethinyl estradiol is THE primary ingredient in female birth control pills used all over the world. The chemical is biologically active at parts per trillion (nanograms/liter, like this study is doing). When a woman takes birth control pills containing this substance, the substance does not just disappear from the face of the earth. Some of it is excreted as-is via urine/feces and some of it is metabolized to other chemicals (also biologically active???).....and these chemicals end up in the toilet, treatment center, and finally the waters of the world. For over a decade since I read (SETAC Journal, if memory serves)) that European studies had found the substance in drinking water (and at Tulane University in the US), I've worried that this chemical was the REAL pollutant causing feminization in birds, fish, alligators, and even early onset of menses in young girls and lower sperm counts in men, instead of all of the researched "industrial chemicals" like bisphenyl-A and other synthetic estrogen mimics that are biologically active at much higher concentrations not usually found in our environment.

I'm soooo glad this study is being done. I'm anxious to see the results if for no other reason than knowing if my worries are real.....or misplaced and wrong. I'm hoping for the latter....ethinyl estradiol gives woman (all over the world!) control over her sexual reproduction and if that same control causes environmental what?

HUGE political problem!!!!!!!!

Makes coal seem small............

PS: Hope the researcher is confirming concentrations in the flow-through water she is dosing....making sure the estrogen isn't sticking to the aquarium walls and biasing the data. The analytical chemistry ain't easy, especially when you're trying to test for ppt concentrations in water containing fish food, slime, and poop........

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 14, 2014 | 7:20 p.m.

" I've worried that this chemical was the REAL pollutant causing feminization in birds, fish, alligators, and even early onset of menses in young girls and lower sperm counts in men"

I agree with you - Bisphenol A is a lot of places like can lining and in polycarbonate water bottles, but it's orders of magnitude less potent.

I have a lot of experience making and working with steroids (the Gomez-Sanchez years of my career) and know they are conjugated with glucuronate or sulfate to be excreted, and these conjugates are still biologically active (although generally not as potent as the original compound). These conjugates are different chromatographically and may not show up as ethinyl estradiol analytically, but they're still sources of estrogenic activity. Same with feedlot runoff.

Premarin stands for Pregnant Mare Urine (conjugated estrogens) and that is a widely prescribed medication for hormone replacement. We're doing the same thing in our lakes and rivers without a prescription.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams June 15, 2014 | 9:34 a.m.

MarkF: What this July 8, 2013 article is doing in the "Most Read Stories" category is beyond me!

It's been a year, so some of this data should be coming in. I hope the Missourian does a followup.

It's gonna be a HUGE political problem if human female hormones prove to be a significant part of environmental feminization.

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