The Fate of Natural and Synthetic Steroidal Estrogens in the Coastal Ocean

EPA Grant Number: FP917134
Title: The Fate of Natural and Synthetic Steroidal Estrogens in the Coastal Ocean
Investigators: Griffith, David Richmond
Institution: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: September 1, 2010 through August 31, 2013
Project Amount: $111,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2010) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Pesticides and Toxic Substances


Steroidal estrogens are potent endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that are routinely discharged to coastal seas via human and industrial wastewaters. Yet we remain largely uninformed about the sources, concentrations, fates, and effects of estrogens in marine ecosystems. We know even less about estrogen conjugates and chlorinated estrogens formed during wastewater disinfection. We hypothesize that past observations have greatly underestimated the environmental dosing with estrogens because conjugated and chlorinated derivatives were not assessed. This research project will quantify a broad suite of estrogens and their conjugated and chlorinated derivatives in wastewater and the receiving waters of Massachusetts Bay. The project also will investigate whether synthetic estrogens have carbon isotope signatures that may allow us to trace their fate in complex environments.


Every day 35 billion gallons of treated waste water is released into U.S. rivers and oceans. These waste streams contain a variety of natural and synthetic estrogens that can threaten aquatic ecosystems and human health at extremely low (ppt) concentration, yet very little is known about the chemical behavior and form of estrogens in receiving coastal waters. This project will address this concern by characterizing the quantity, speciation, and fate of estrogens in Massachusetts Bay.


We will begin by determining the identities and concentrations of estrogens and their conjugated and chlorinated derivatives in Deer Island wastewater treatment plant effluent and at several locations in Massachusetts Bay. Estrogens will be concentrated from large volume water samples by solid phase extraction and quantified using a liquid chromatography coupled to a tandem mass spectrometer. These measurements will be used to construct the first quantitative budget of estrogens in Massachusetts Bay in order to identify important sources, sinks, and transformations, and assess the role of conjugated estrogens in the overall budget. In addition, preparative liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry will allow us to isolate individual estrogens from wastewater extracts for subsequent carbon isotopic analysis.

Expected Results:

This study would be the first of its kind to measure the full suite of estrogens in coastal waters. Characterizing the chemical and isotopic signatures of estrogens represents an important first step towards developing a comprehensive understanding of the fate and hazard of estrogenic compounds in coastal ecosystems. The results will facilitate the development of quantitative tools, ranging from a simple mass balance box model to a 3-D numerical transport and fate model for steroidal estrogens in Massachusetts Bay. These models can then help us understand how different estrogen species (free vs. conjugated vs. chlorinated) respond to transport and transformation processes controlling their environmental distributions.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection:

Improving our understanding of the speciation and chemical behavior of synthetic chemicals and endocrine disruptors in coastal waters will have far-reaching benefits to coastal ecosystems and human health. With more information about dominant estrogen species and their transformations, coastal managers and engineers can develop realistic chemical transport models and, together with policy makers, begin to evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation strategies that include source controls, treatment technologies, and redesigning pharmaceutical estrogens. This approach should be broadly applied as a way to anticipate and avoid similar problems in the future.

Supplemental Keywords:

steroidal estrogens, conjugated estrogens, chlorinated estrogens, carbon isotopes, coastal ecosystem health, endocrine disrupting chemicals, mass balance model, Massachusetts Bay,

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2011
  • 2012
  • Final