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Quebec researchers look to alter wastewater testing for endocrine disruptors

Two INRS students test the effects of pesticides on the American toad tadpoles in an agricultural pond. Photo Credit: INRS

A pair of researchers at Quebec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) are developing a new effluent analysis tool to track and understand more about the cocktail of endocrine disruptors found in wastewater.

Testing for endocrine disruptors, which can alter organisms’ hormonal systems and development, has often proved expensive and relied heavily on testing fish. However, the Quebec research team relied on biological analyses that can measure the reactions of human cell lines exposed to wastewater samples.

The human cell lines are genetically modified in the laboratory to be sensitive to certain hormones, explained INRS researcher Julie Robitaille, a doctoral student in water sciences.

“When an endocrine disruptor activates the receptors on these cells, they emit a small light. That’s how we determine whether the wastewater could be posing a risk to the hormonal system,” explained Robitaille in a statement from INRS, noting that further research is needed to reveal how her cellular findings translate to aquatic species.

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Robitaille said that the challenge in monitoring wastewater comes from the “cocktail” of endocrine disruptors commonly found in pharmaceutical and household products, as well as in other environmental contaminants.

“You can’t just look at whether each individual substance is present,” said Robitaille. “You need to analyze whether the entire mixture has any effect, since these contaminants can have different consequences when combined with other chemicals.”

Robitaille used several techniques to demonstrate the effectiveness of bioassays, one of which involved making an inventory of all the tools available to regulatory authorities around the world. The work appeared in the Environmental Research journal’s 2022 Special Issue on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.

“There is interest in Quebec and around the world in finding ways to track endocrine disruptors,” announced Valérie Langlois, scientific head of the INRS Ecotoxicogenomics and Endocrine Disruption Laboratory. “These methods could even identify where the contamination is coming from in a given area — whether it’s from agricultural, hospital, municipal, or industrial environments,” Langlois added.

The pair of researchers are also working with municipal and industrial partners to monitor drinking water and wastewater to plan for potential infrastructure changes.

INRS developed the Intersectoral Centre for Endocrine Disruptors Analysis in late 2020.

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