Endocrine Disruption in the Scheldt estuary:
distribution, exposure and effects
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There is growing concern about the potential of various chemicals to produce changes in the functioning of the endocrine system of humans and animals. This issue presently attracts a lot of public interest and is subject to world-wide discussions between experts, governmental organisation, academics and industry. Known natural hormones as well as relatively unknown environmental pollutants seem to have the ability to potentially disrupt the endocrine system of man and animal in such a way that harmful effects on their development and reproduction can occur. An educational service that offers general information on this issue is the environmental estrogens and other environmental hormones website. The latest developments in the endocrine disruptor research area are discussed on e.hormone, a website where you can find various useful links to other endocrine disruptor related resources.

Causal links between the presence of these potential endocrine disrupting agents in the environment and the possible effects on man and animal are, in general, difficult to establish. Due to the high degree of complexity of the endocrine system of both vertebrates and invertebrates, a multi-disciplinary approach is needed to assess possible impact of this threat. Although the aquatic environment will be one of the environmental compartments initially affected, the holistic approach of this problem requires the incorporation of the possible effects on man - as endpoint in the food chain- in the global risk assessment. In this perspective, reproductive disruption in aquatic organisms (certain species of snails, fishes, fish eating birds and mammals), that are possibly related to exposure to this kind of substances, have been observed during the last decade.

Estuaries belong to the most productive ecosystems in the marine environment and are important breeding areas for many crustaceans and fish. The first indications of possible effects of endocrine disrupting substances and the presence of these substances in the Scheldt estuary have recently been published. The industrial areas of Ghent and Antwerp are to a large extent responsible for this pollution. Therefore, there is an obvious need to investigate the occurrence of endocrine disruption in the Scheldt estuary. In addition, a detailed knowledge of the distribution and long-term effects of these substances is needed in the framework of future-oriented policy measures at the national and European level.

Organisations like US-EPA, OECD, WWF, EMSG, WHO propagate and support the world-wide networking of the current research efforts on endocrine disruption. Due to the lack of standardised evaluation tests for the endocrine disrupting potential of chemicals, the development of in vivo and in vitro test systems allowing a clear screening is presently a major goal. This project provides fundamental knowledge that can be used for the development and/or the application of standardised evaluation assays.

One of the main goals within OSPAR is the rapid development of methods for the identification of xenobiotics as endocrine disruptors and to study the effects of these substances on the marine environment. Among their priorities, OSPAR also mentions a series of actions to be undertaken which are addressed in this project, e.g. the study of reproductive disruption in marine organisms, fundamental research on the underlying mechanisms in invertebrates and the development of in vitro yeast assays in combination with TIE (Toxicity Identification and Evaluation) techniques.

The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, in their Water Framework Directive, are taking specific measures for combating water pollution caused by specific polluting agents or groups of pollutants that pose a significant risk to or through the aquatic environment. Within this framework the European Commission has proposed a list of priority agents (with a revision after every four years) and measures aimed at the elimination or gradual termination of discharges and emissions of these chemicals. This project creates a scientific framework for the above-mentioned policy priorities.

Supported by
the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office

General coordination: Colin Janssen, An Ghekiere
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