Estrogenic endocrine disruption in Switzerland: Assessment of fish exposure and effects


Estrogenic exposure has been reported to occur in Swiss rivers, and there is concern that reduced reproductive health, caused by disturbances of the endocrine system, may contribute to the observed decline in brown trout catch. Consequently, we aimed to determine if disturbances of the endocrine system do occur in wild brown trout (Salmo trutta) in Switzerland and, in the affirmative case, if these might affect trout population status. Our first task was to characterize the estrogenicity of Swiss midland rivers that receive effluents from sewage treatment plants (STP). Next, we performed a set of laboratory and field exposure experiments aimed at elucidating how estrogens affect sexual development and reproductive parameters as estrogen-sensitive targets in the life cycle of brown trout. Subsequently, we assessed the demographic status of brown trout populations in the field which were exposed to the cumulative impact of estrogen-active compounds and other stressors. Finally, we integrated the data into a life-cycle model to predict potential population-level consequences of the (xeno)estrogenic exposure. The estrogenicity of 18 Swiss midland rivers was characterized bioanalytically by applying the YES bioassay to water samples and by measuring plasma vitellogenin (VTG) levels in resident brown trout. Generally, estrogenic contamination of the rivers appears to occur only locally and at comparatively low levels (0.2-2 ng/l 17β-estradiol equivalents). In laboratory experiments, potential disruptive effects of estrogens on gonadal differentiation and reproduction of brown trout were investigated. The estrogen-sensitive window of brown trout gonad differentiation was found to differ from other salmonid species. Feminisation of the developing gonads occurred only after exposure to rather high estrogen concentrations. Analysis of VTG mRNA levels indicated that the yolk may accumulate environmental estrogens and act as a long-term reservoir. The experiments to study the effects of prolonged estrogen exposure on reproduction of mature brown trout showed that, while VTG was induced at low concentrations (20 ng/l estrone (E1), 2 ng/l 17β-estradiol (E2) and 400 ng/l 4-nonylphenol (NP)), effects on reproductive parameters such as fertility became evident only at the higher dose (100 ng/l estrone, 10 ng/l 17β-estradiol and 4000 ng/l 4-nonylphenol). For the field study, the river Lützelmurg (Canton Thurgau) was selected as our study site. This river is impacted by the estrogen-active effluents of one sewage treatment plant (STP). Estrogenic levels in the river were found to be highly variable over time, but showed a distinct difference between sites upstream and downstream from the STP effluent - a difference which was also reflected by the VTG levels of caged and resident brown trout. From the brown trout demographic data, it is evident that factors other than estrogen exposure, including habitat quality, strongly influence population structure. The results from the modelling supported this finding and showed that the trout population in the Lützelmurg is likely to be more sensitive to changes of survival rates in the first winter and beyond than to changes in early life stage survival or reproductive parameters. From the overall results of our project, we conclude that a significant influence of estrogenic contamination on brown trout population densities in the majority of Swiss rivers appears not to be likely. © Schweizerische Chemische Gesellschaft.