Endocrine disrupting compounds in the coastal environment

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Many pollutants in aquatic environment have received significant attention due to their potential estrogenic effects and are classified as endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs). According to scientific and regulatory community endocrine disruptors are defined as exogenous substances or mixtures that alter the function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently cause adverse health effects in intact organisms, or their progeny or (sub)population (EPA, 1997; EC, 1999).

Mechanisms of estrogenic action

EDCs interfere with the endocrine system in different ways:(EC, 1999; Baker, 2001).

  • mimic or antagonize the action of endogenous hormones,
  • interfere with the synthesis, metabolism, transport and excretion of natural hormones and
  • alter the hormone receptor levels.

Effects on wildlife and humans

The occurrence of EDCs in the environment may pose adverse health effects, reproductive abnormalities and impaired development in wildlife species. Effects of endocrine disruption have been reported in mussels, crustaceans, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals (Depledge and Billinghurst, 1999; Waring and Harris, 2005; Canesi et al., 2004). Moreover there is a lot of discussion about possible adverse effects to humans. EDCs have been suggested as being responsible for changes in human health (decline in sperm counts and quality, impotence, increased incidence of genital abnormalities and increased incidences of certain types of cancer) observed over recent decades (Baker, 2001; Mendes et al., 2002).

Endocrine Disrupting Compounds

EDCs comprise of naturally produced hormones and man-made compounds (Metzler and Pfeiffer, 2001). The first category includes endogenous hormones such as estrogens, progesterone and testosterone produced in mammals, phytoestrogens like isoflavones present in many plants and mycoestrogens produced from fungi. Man-made chemicals include synthetic hormones and industrial chemicals. Synthetic hormones are used as oral contraceptives, in hormone replacement treatment and as animal feed additives. Industrial chemicals include numerous compounds produced for diverse purposes and may exhibit sex hormone-like activities. Such compounds have been found in certain chemical classes e.g. phenols, halogenated substances and phthalates. Among the phenolic compounds produced by chemical industry, two classes, alkylphenols and bisphenols, present scientific and public interest as potential EDCs. Both are produced in large quantities and subsequently released into the environment. Alkylphenols are either used directly e.g. as antioxidants or released from alkylphenol polyethoxylates widely used as cleaning agents in the textile and plastic industry, for household and personal care items and in agriculture. The prototype of bisphenols, bisphenol A, is used in the production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polychlorinated compounds that show estrogenic activity are certain chlorinated pesticides (DDT, dieldrin, endosulfan etc), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), especially their hydroxylated metabolites and their conjugates, and polychlorinated dibenzo(p)dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs). Another class of widely used industrial chemicals that are potential EDCs are phthalates, produced and applied to plastics, cosmetics, adhesives, paints etc. Moreover, many compounds are under investigation since they are suspected to have estrogenic activity.

Analytical Determination

The analytical procedure for the determination of EDCs from environmental samples includes isolation of the target compounds through various extraction techniques and determination by employing mainly liquid or gas chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry (GC-MS, GC-MS/MS, LC-MS, LC-MS/MS) (Gomes et al., 2003). Furthermore, bioassays based on various mechanisms (cell proliferation, ligand binding, vitellogenin induction, luciferase induction, antigen-antibody intervention) provide substantial information on the estrogenic activity of environmental samples (Campbell et al., 2006).

EDCs in European coastal environment

EDCs occur mainly in domestic and industrial wastewaters. They can enter marine environment through discharges of industrial and sewage wastewater, emissions from various marine activities, oil spills or indirectly through rivers, streams and canals that receive wastewater or surface runoff and end up in the sea. For this reason, the higher concentrations of EDCs are usually found close to sewage impacted areas, harbors and river estuaries. There are several studies on the occurrence of EDCs in European coastal environment. EDCs were found in seawater, sediments and suspended solids in the Mediterranean Sea (Pojana et al., 2004; Pinto et al., 2005; Arditsoglou and Voutsa, 2006; Gόmez-Gutiérrez et al., 2007; Micheletti et al., 2007), Baltic Sea (Beck et al., 2005) and North Sea (Bester et al., 2001; Jonkers et al., 2005; Noppe et al., 2007). Moreover, EDCs were also determined in various marine species, invertebrates and vertebrates such as molluscs, crustaceans, mussels and fishes (Günther et al., 2001; Ferrara et al., 2005; Porte et al., 2006; Fossi et al., 2007).


The Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC establishes a framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater (EC, 2000). The aim of this Directive is to prevent further deterioration of the aquatic environment and to protect the status of aquatic ecosystems through specific measures for the progressive reduction of discharges, emission and losses of priority substances. Among chemical pollutants of particular concern are endocrine disrupters (Annex VIII-group 4). Thus, the Member States have to take action to prevent human exposure to endocrine disrupting substances via the aquatic environment.


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Baker, V.A. (2001) Endocrine disrupters – testing strategies to assess human hazard. Toxicology in Vitro, vol. 15: 413-419 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0887-2333(01)00045-5).

Beck, I-C., Bruhn, R., Gandrass, J., Ruck, W. (2005) Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry analysis of estrogenic compounds in coastal surface water of the Baltic Sea. Journal of Chromatography A, vol. 1090: 98-106 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chroma.2005.07.013).

Bester, K., Theobald, N., Schroder, H.Fr. (2001) Nonylphenols, nonylphenol-ethoxylates, linear alkylbenzenesulfonates (LAS)and bis (4-chlorophenyl)-sulfone in the German Bight of the North Sea. Chemosphere, vol. 45: 817-826 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0045-6535(01)00023-6).

Campbell, C.G., Borglin, S.E., Green, F.B., Grayson, A., Wozei, E., Stringfellow, W.T. (2006). Biologically directed environmental monitoring, fate, and transport of estrogenic disrupting compounds in water: A review. Chemosphere, vol. 65: 1265-1280 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2006.08.003).

Canesi, L., Lorusso, L.C., Ciacci, C., Betti, M., Zampini, M., Gallo, G. (2004) Environmental estrogens can affect the function of mussel hemocytes through rapid modulation of kinase pathways. General and Comparative Endocrinology, vol. 138: 58-69 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2004.05.004).

Depledge, M.H., Billinfhurst, Z. (1999) Ecological significance of endocrine disruption in marine invertebrates. Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol. 39: 32-38 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0025-326X(99)00115-0).

EC (1999) Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament. Community Strategy for Endocrine Disrupters a range of substances suspected of interfering with the hormone systems of humans and wildlife. COM(1999) 706 final. Brussels 17.12.1999 (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/committees/envi/20000418/123706_en.pdf).

EC (2000) Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy. OJ L 327,22.12.2000, p.1 (http://europa.eu.int/eur-lex/pri/en/oj/dat/2000/l_327/l_32720001222en00010072.pdf).

EPA (1997) Special report on Environmental Endocrine Disruption: An Effects Assessment and Analysis. Office of Research and Development, EPA/630/R-96/012, Washington D.C. (http://www.p2pays.org/ref/07/06070.pdf).

Ferrara, F., Fabietti, F., Delise, M., Funari, E. (2005) Alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates contamination of crustaceans and fishes from the Adriatic Sea (Italy). Chemospher,e vol. 59: 1145-1150 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2004.11.085).

Fossi, M.C., Casini, S., Marsili, L. (2007) Potential toxicological hazard due to endocrine-disrupting chemicals on Mediterranean top predators: State of art, gender differences and methodological tools. Environmental Research, vol. 104: 174-182 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2006.06.014).

Gagné, F., Blaise, C., Hellou, J.(2004) Endocrine disruption and health effects of caged mussels, Elliptio complanata, placed downstream from a primary-treated municipal effluent plume for 1 year. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part C vol. 138: 33-44 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cca.2004.04.006).

Gomes, L.R., Scrimshaw, D.M., Lester, N.J. (2003) Determination of endocrine disrupters in sewage treatment and receiving waters. Trends in Analytical Chemistry, vol. 22: 697-706 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0165-9936(03)01011-2).

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Günther, K., Dürbeck, H.-W., Kleist, E., Thiele, B., Prast, H., Schwuger, M. (2001) Endocrine-disrupting nonylphenols – ultra-trace analysis and time-dependent trend in mussels from the German bight. Fresenious Journal of Analytical Chemistry, vol. 371: 782-786 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s002160101022).

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Mendes, J.J.A. (2002) The endocrine disrupters: a major medical challenge. Food and Chemical Toxicology, vol. 40: 781-788 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0278-6915(02)00018-2).

Metzler, M., Pfeiffer, E. (2001) Chemistry of Natural and Anthopogenic Endocrine Active Compounds. In The handbook of environmental Chemistry 3-L, Endocrine Disruptors Part I. Metzler, M. (Ed.), Springer: 63-80.

Micheletti, C., Critto, A., Marcomini, A. (2007) Assessment of ecological risk from bioaccumulation of PCDD/Fs and dioxin-like PCBs in a coastal lagoon. Environment International, vol. 33: 45-55 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2006.06.023).

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Porte, C., Janer, G., Lorusso, L.C., Ortiz-Zarragoitia, M., Cajaraville, M.P., Fossi, M.C., Canesi, L. (2006) Endocrine disruptors in marine organisms: Approaches and perspectives. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, Part C, vol. 143: 303-315 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cbpc.2006.03.004).

Waring, R.H., Harris, R.M. (2005) Endocrine disrupters: A human risk? Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, vol. 244: 2-9 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mce.2005.02.007).

by D. Voutsa and A. Arditsoglou, Environmental Pollution Control Laboratory, Chemistry Department, Aristotle University Thessaloniki, GR 54124, Greece. Email:dvoutsa@chem.auth.gr

The main author of this article is Dimitra Voutsa
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Dimitra Voutsa (2007): Endocrine disrupting compounds in the coastal environment. Available from http://www.coastalwiki.org/wiki/Endocrine_disrupting_compounds_in_the_coastal_environment [accessed on 25-05-2020]