Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, CEO of the St. Louis Zoo, was published in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article Saturday that connects the endangered Hellbender salamander’s reproductive problem to something in the water that also may be lowering the sperm count of men living around the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the middle of the United States. Fascinating read. Here’s link to story, and here are excerpts:

About 12 years ago, scientists realized that our native hellbenders had virtually stopped reproducing. The mature ones were doing fine, but offspring were not being born in substantial numbers. In laboratory tests, trace amounts of herbicides (which are present in the bodies of rural Missouri men) can cause male frogs to turn into hermaphrodites, creatures with male and female sex organs. Worse, the herbicides can cause those changes at concentrations of about one-tenth of a part per billion — 30 times lower than those deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Of equal concern is many of the common drugs we consume. Their contents pass through our bodies, into sewage treatment plants and back into our rivers and streams. Estrogen, the active ingredient in many birth control pills, is one of these. In frogs, low levels of estrogen cause exposed tadpoles to become female; under normal conditions, half develop female and half develop male.

The article explains what may be happening as we go to the bathroom near Missouri’s streams, which are popular places for canoeing. But how does what’s in the water affect us, directly?

In 2003, the authors of a study of Missouri men found a strong link between trace amounts of herbicides in the men’s urine and the quality of their semen. The authors concluded that men were exposed to the herbicides through public drinking water. We need to pay much more attention to what we’re putting into our water, whether they be small streams or mighty rivers. We need to be careful of how we dispose of our waste oil, paint and solvents, careful of how much water we consume, careful to practice the best agricultural practices possible. We need to consider that a tiny bit of something that someone has poured (or excreted) into the water upstream can easily enter our bodies. And a tiny bit of something we put in our water can be ingested by someone in New Orleans.