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The hidden health risk in our water


With industrial and agricultural effluents, sewage works and landfill sites contributing to the pollution levels in our water sources and environment, the quality of our drinking water is fast becoming a debateable topic. Waste water treatment systems are generally geared for removing biological activities rather than chemical ones and as a result, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) - which are harmful chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system of animals and humans and can compromise their reproductive systems and thyroid signalling mechanisms - are likely to be found in the grey water that comes out of sewage treatment plants contaminating environmental water. If this water is used as a source for drinking water there is a potential health risk, as less sophisticated drinking water treatment plants may not be equipped to remove EDCs from their processes.


While very limited research in South Africa focuses on EDCs, a research team at the University of Pretoria (UP) has been conducting EDC studies in the laboratory and the field since 1999. The Environmental Chemical Pollution and Health (ECPH) Research Unit at UP was officially formed in 2012, and aims to investigate the effects of various EDCs on the environment and human health, with an emphasis on animal and human reproductive health. The Unit is a collaboration between the School of Health Systems and Public Health and the Department of Urology in the Faculty of Health Sciences and is currently involved with a diverse range of research projects in its three laboratories, namely the Endocrine Disrupting Chemical (EDC) laboratory (bioassays for endocrine endpoints), the Toxicology Lab (reproductive focus) and the Andrology Laboratory (male health – human and animal).

Through its efforts to understand EDCs and finding ways to decrease their impact on both human and environmental health, the Unit's work strives for a healthier public health system in South Africa.


The ECPH Research Unit is currently collaborating on a large international project with the Global Water Research Coalition, co-funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC) SA, aimed at developing a toolbox of bioassays to expand the bioassays for endocrine disruptive effects that can be used to screen for activity in water samples. This involves establishing a new and emerging endpoint for EDC effects, the thyroid activity bioassay (GH3-TreLuc cell line), in the EDC Laboratory. Once the assay has been established, the laboratory will participate in an international round-robin phase of testing the suitability of different assays in different laboratories across the globe. Two of the assays in the ECPH Research Unit will be included, for androgenic activity and the thyroid assay.

The ECPH Research Unit has also conducted water analyses projects in areas such as Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve in Pretoria and in Limpopo Province where tests were done on an array of life from all trophic levels. Results showed evidence of the harmful effects of EDC exposure to both animals and humans. Through their collaborative efforts with various partners, staff of the Unit is actively looking for innovative and tangible solutions to reduce the impacts of EDCs.

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