EDCs not as serious in SA water - expert

2013-05-28 12:00
Water supply is a critical issue in SA. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Water supply is a critical issue in SA. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Endocrine disruptors in South African fresh water supply does not pose an immediate threat to the nation's health, a researcher has said.

A report on endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs) released by the UN has highlighted environmental and health risks facing many countries including SA.

"Certainly these things are there and certainly; they have a long term implication," Dr Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist in the Division of Community Health at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University, told News24.

Chemicals commonly used products, including flame retardants, pesticides and many types of plastics, have some effect on the human endocrine system.

EDCs have been blamed for children born with abnormalities and for causing cancer, but Barnes said that the problem in SA was small compared to a much bigger issue.


In May, 89 scientists signed the 2013 Berlaymont Declaration on endocrine disruptors which calls for a regulatory framework for EDCs.

"A major problem is that for many endocrine disrupting effects, internationally agreed and validated test methods do not exist, although scientific tools and laboratory methods are available," said Professor Susan Jobling from Brunel University in the UK.

Barnes conceded that cancer and serious disease was a risk resulting from exposure to EDCs, but said that sewage in water supplies was a more immediate problem.

"For that [cancer] to happen, you need to ingest quite a lot of it over time, while the failings that we have with the sewage entering the water is killing people as we speak."

She said that sewage from treatment works in the country was directly causing increased health risks, especially in poor areas.

"It's not even an outbreak anymore because it's simply massive levels of diarrhoea in all of these poorer areas. It's become so accepted now that they don't even see it as an outbreak anymore," said Barnes.

The Upper Olifants River Study, released on Tuesday, showed high levels of faecal pollution in the river as well as seven different pathogens, including giardia, cryptosporium, salmonella, and norovirus.


Professor Edmund Pool recently studied the extent of CDCs in SA and found that treatment works cannot remove all the compounds that pollute the water.

"All the sewage treatment plants I've tested in the Western Cape were found to remove 80% of hormones, the untreated 20% has been shown to be able to change the morphology and sex ratios of some animals like fishes, frogs, and crabs," said Pool.

Barnes agreed with Pool, but argued that the risk was long term.

"It certainly is there and our purification works can't take it out in most areas of the country anymore, however, it is a long term risk; it builds up for sure."

Barnes urged caution in ascribing blame for children born with disabilities to CDCs, saying that a more in-depth study was required.

"They ascribe the entire occurrence of it [abnormal births] to the endocrine disruptors, but there've been such occurrences naturally for as long as human beings have produced children. What you should do, is measure is the background before endocrine disruptors and after they came."

She said that some scientists were more focused on their research grants than uncovering the truth of the extent of the problem in an objective manner.


"People tend to push their own agendas by making things very dramatic. Scientists are equally - and I'm scientist myself - they are equally guilty of blowing up their own little private funding in order to get headlines.

"All-in-all, what I'm pleading for is balance in interpreting of these things," Barnes argued.

She said that unless the public made the issue of water one that became a central election issue, politicians would delay implementing a comprehensive programme on water safety.

"Eventually, when water failings become a risk to the voting of the politicians, they will suddenly find the will, but up to that point... "

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Read more on:    water  |  environment  |  pollution

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