When scientists start seeing male fish with eggs in their testes because of exposure to manmade chemicals in American river water, it’s certain to generate the kind of attention that many other pollution issues never achieve. Boys growing eggs can’t be a good thing.

    These feminized fish with compromised immune systems aren’t a brand new issue, having been found in various watersheds around the country since at least the mid-1990s. More immediately newsworthy, as reported by Ashley Ahearn of KUOW National Public Radio, is research that ties this gender scrambling in part to miniscule levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are discharged by sewage-treatment plants and stormwater drains.

    Juvenile Chinook salmon in Seattle’s Elliott Bay and bass in the southeastern U.S. are among the fish being impacted. Ample money is not made available for watershed monitoring — perhaps in part because industries and the politicians they support prefer to plead ignorance rather than confront difficult problems. But it seems likely that this problem is quite widespread, particularly in the waters below wastewater treatment facilities. Here on the Columbia estuary, we’re downstream from a bunch of them.

    Some of possible chemical culprits include bisphenol A (BPA) and the synthetic estrogen in birth-control pills. BPA is one of the chemicals commonly used in plastics, such as the thin film that lines the insides of food cans. It’s also in epoxies and many other products. It only recently has been phased out of baby bottles and sippy cups. BPA is estimated to be in the urine of 90 percent of Americans.

    These hormone imposters can create problems even when they occur at vanishingly small levels. Getting them out of the water at the treatment stage simply may be impossible with currently affordable technology.

    Like the relatively successful effort to keep chemicals out of atmosphere that were destroying our protective ozone layer, what may ultimately be required is a complete ban on BPA and related chemicals. This is far easier said than done, and will be expensive.

    This is another reminder that it is easier to keep dangerous stuff out of the air and water than it is to extract it once it is there. It may sometimes be annoying or costly to address these concerns before using chemicals, but we too often learn to our regret that we should have paid attention.

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