Soap in Lakes and Rivers Changes the Sex of Fish!


Sorry, I couldn’t resist the title, but it is interesting how the more things change, the more they stay the same. A decade or more ago, the controversy was over phosphates in laundry detergents. Today, I read a newspaper article that reported that the use of certain chemicals, not just in laundry detergent but in most of our cleaning products, is again being brought to the fore. Now one of the problems is “gender changes” in trout and other fish exposed to the chemicals after these cleaning products are rinsed down our drains. Oh my! Makes me very glad I reduced my use of laundry soap by 1/2 several years ago!

Apparently about 400 million pounds of these chemicals, which mimic estrogen and other hormones, are produced in the United States every year. Much of this is drained into sewers and septic systems and then finds its way into rivers and lakes. I suspect a small amount of the rest, at least, remains in our homes and on our clothes. I know that from a scientific cost/benefit relationship, the question that is often studied is how high an exposure is dangerous to us and to the environment. However, because some of these chemicals react synergistically with other chemicals, it can be difficult to understand the true environmental and health effects when limiting an exposure study to just one chemical. Many of us feel that when dealing with chemicals like these in our household products, less is best and the less the better.

Sometimes when I read the numbers associated with stories like this one, I am flabbergasted! Four hundred million pounds! On the other hand, it makes me even more certain that small changes in our lives can generate very positive results. We can all find a few things from the sustainability, simple living, environmental, organic food, or healthy living philosophies to apply to our own lives. Enough of us make a few small changes and the overall benefit can be immense. This common sense, “small change” approach can be applied to positively influence energy use, the environment, the physical and mental health of ourselves and our children, and the viability of our local communities.

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Will Sig
1 pelf

Eutrophication causes algae blooms which in turn smother and kill corals. That I know.

But excessive nutrients changes the sex of fish? Are those fish hermaphrodite in the first place? 😀


2 Will

It is certain chemicals in soap, shampoo, and other personal hygiene products that cause the sex changes. Among other effects, these chemicals mimic hormones like estrogen. The fish are exposed to the chemicals that end up in rivers and lakes and all sorts of weird things happen to them.

The algae blooms are caused by a few different things, including the excess of chemicals you point out. As you point out, The end result is bad regardless of the initial cause… depletion of the oxygen in the water and smothering of aquatic life.


3 Joey Logano

Well I suppose bad things would happen to humans too if soap was in their drinking water. lol


4 Inya Kawin

Soap is actually very harmful to all living things and not only to the fish.


5 AJ

As a scientist, this article (any many others) are appalling. In fact, this may be the most vaguely written report ever done on an environmental issue.

1) you have no scientific reference article
2) phosphorous causes increased planktonic growth…which (when they die) causes oxygen consumption [aka eutrophication]. Phosphorous has not been used in detergents in a long time.
3) 400 lbs of chemicals? lol you don’t even know what it is?

I’m not trying to be mean, but this kind of information is very misleading to the uninformed. I liken your articles to the National Enquirer.


6 Will

Thanks for the comment AJ. What area of science are you in? Are you a graduate student in the Environmental Science Dept at Iowa State University?

Here are a few links to other similar stories referencing soap and other chemicals:

Sex-Changing Chemicals Found in Potomac River

Male fish becoming female?

More than 80% of the male bass fish in Washington’s major river are now exhibiting female traits

Phosphorus is still used in some dishwasher detergent. I recently read an article, (I think in the NY Times Magazine), about an ongoing argument over removing it from all dishwasher detergents. Many “experts” claim that without it dishes, particularly glassware, are not cleaned properly. I am not one of those experts, but we have been using a Costco house brand of dishwasher detergent that does not have phosphates and our glasses get cleaned just fine. I wish you were right that it is no longer being used. It has been greatly reduced, but it is a common misconception that it was long ago removed from all products.


7 Phillip

Often it is scientists that are the last to accept the evidence of harmful chemicals etc. In their profession, repeatable proof is the gold standard. Evidence of harm only means more study is needed. This is the scientific method and is OK and important to scientific advances. However it often the non-scientist who is sounding the alarm long before the “proof” is in the pudding, so to speak. It is hard to believe that anyone, scientist or otherwise, would argue that there is no problem with all the soap, chemicals, medicines, etc. we are dumping in our waterways.

Oh, and AJ, Mr Scientist, it is 400 million pounds, not 400.


8 Will

Hi Phillip – AJ is actually making a good point about the links. Sometimes I don’t remember to include all the links I should when write about things I’ve read.

Your point about science is a good one. I remember an entomology professor I had in college 30 years ago who had a “bug” up his you know what about the banning of DDT. To him DDT was a heaven sent gift in the fight against crop destroying insects and completely harmless to birds and mammals. Every year he used to eat a little in his class to show that he was positive it was safe. Unfortunately he died of cancer at a fairly young age. Of course there is no proof his DDT consumption was related to his death. He was exposed to lots of other chemicals too in his chosen profession. It is also possible that his lot was just to be unlucky in living a long life and his cancer was unrelated to exposure of any kind.

I believe you are also correct that we should reduce our dumping of chemicals into the environment to the lowest level possible. Who cares if there is yet “proof” of harm from any one specific compound? We humans all too often still think of the earth’s waterways as an unlimited disposal ground for the byproducts of industrialization. We benefit from this industrialization in many ways, but we benefit also by limiting our inadvertent or purposeful dumping of chemicals, soaps, etc into our waters.


9 AJ

Will, thank you very much for the links.

I need to apologize for my previous statement. I tend to get carried away sometimes because media outlets have such a powerful impact on human perception and unsupported claims can give A LOT of people incomplete ideas. I specifically get annoyed when ‘general chemicals’ are being discussed because that really doesn’t tell me much. I am in no way disagreeing that certain compounds can cause major adverse effects….and I certainly agree that overuse and mismanagement of industrial co- products is a major environmental/health issue.

I see a lot of stories that make definitive claims without proper evidence and that can cause unnecessary hysteria among people. The links verify what you stated. That’s really what I got in a tizzy about. Thanks so much!

….oh and my field is environmental chemistry.


10 AJ

p.s. – RIP Rachel Carson


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