BERRYVILLE — Between 2014 and 2016, scientists working for and partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey started looking into endocrine disruption in fish in the Shenandoah River.
Endocrine disruption can harm the brain development and reproductive functioning of fish, according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s website, and often enters the water because of harmful chemicals that humans release into the environment.
On Wednesday and Friday, with research papers nearing publication, two of the U.S. Geological Survey researchers presented their findings. So far, the research has shown that the Shenandoah River has fairly low levels of endocrine disruptors.
“Overall, from this short-term duration, we saw very low incidents of disruption,” Jennifer Rapp, a biogeographer for the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the project’s researchers, said of the findings.
The findings are a positive sign for the water quality of the Shenandoah River, suggesting that water discharging into the river from wastewater treatment plants is only having a slight effect on the health of fish in the river.
Larry Barber, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the researchers on the project, said that the findings were an important result. But he added that because the results show positive results for the water quality of the Shenandoah River, it could prove hard to spread the word about the findings.
“It’s hard to get the good news, no-effect message across,” Barber said. “It’s easy to get the bad news, ‘Oh my goodness, oh I could be dying’ across.”
As part of the research, the scientists looked for concentrations of a wide array of chemicals that might appear in the water because of human use.
Wastewater treatment plants struggle to filter out many of those chemicals from the water, leaving traces of them in the river when water gets discharged out of the treatment plants. However, Barber emphasized that the treatment plants themselves were not causing the problems.
“That is not where the problems reside,” Barber said of the plants. “Treatment plants are where the solutions reside.”
But when the treatment plants discharge water back into the Shenandoah River, that water contains traces of chemicals that could be potentially harmful to fish.
If the concentrations of some of these chemicals are high enough, it could cause a high risk to fish health.
But although the researchers have seen a number of chemicals coming from water discharged from these wastewater plants, their concentration has been fairly low. In only a few cases were the concentrations high enough to constitute even a moderate risk to the health of fish.
In addition, the researchers looked at the health of minnows in the river.
In analyzing the mortality of minnows at different spots in the river, the researchers found that the animals thrived in the river water.
“The waters are very nontoxic to these mature organisms,” Barber said. “They actually thrive. They like the water.”
The researchers focused on the health of minnows because they are, to use Barber’s comparison, like lab rats. Because scientists have conducted a large number of studies on the minnows, researchers know a lot about their biology.
But while the research points toward positive results for the water quality of the Shenandoah River, Rapp and Barber pointed out that there are limitations to the research so far.
Although the researchers looked at the concentration of a large number of chemicals at various spots in the Shenandoah River, they did not analyze how those chemicals were potentially mixing with one another. How those chemicals mix could change how harmful the water is for fish.
In addition, the research only looked at the health of minnows and the food the researchers fed the minnows did not come from the river.