An extensive study was carried out in the Netherlands on the occurrence of a number of estrogenic compounds in surface water, sediment, biota, wastewater, rainwater and on the associated effects in fish. Compounds investigated included natural and synthetic hormones, phthalates, alkylphenol(ethoxylate)s and bisphenol-A. The results showed that almost all selected (xeno-)estrogens were present at low concentrations in the aquatic environment. Locally, they were found at higher levels. Hormones and nonylphenol(ethoxylate)s were present in concentrations that are reportedly high enough to cause estrogenic effects in fish. Field surveys did not disclose significant estrogenic effects in male flounder (Platichthys flesus) in the open sea and in Dutch estuaries. Minor to moderate estrogenic effects were observed in bream (Abramis brama) in major inland surface waters such as lowland rivers and a harbor area. The prevalence of feminizing effects in male fish is largest in small regional surface waters that are strongly influenced by sources of potential hormone-disrupting compounds. High concentrations of plasma vitellogenin and an increased prevalence of ovotestes occurred in wild male bream in a small river receiving a considerable load of effluent from a large sewage treatment plant. After employing in vitro and in vivo bioassays, both in situ and in the laboratory, we conclude that in this case hormones (especially 17α-ethynylestradiol) and possibly also nonylphenol(ethoxylate)s are primarily responsible for these effects. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.