Possible mechanisms to explain endocrine effects on reproduction and sex differentiation are presented for selected pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, industrial chemicals and plant sterols which are known to be present in the aquatic environment. Disruptions of the hormonal coordination can be induced by xenobiotics on various levels of the hierachically organised endocrine system of vertebrates. Phthalate plasticisers, for example, may disrupt the pituitary control of gonadal functions; prenatal/larval exposure to synthetic estrogen impairs sex differentiation and neuroendocrine sexual determination of the central nervous system; phenylurea herbicides block the androgen receptor; the biotransformation of weakly estrogenic plant sterol components of paper mill wastewater (e.g. beta-sitosterol) may lead to androgenic compounds. The effect of hypolipidemic drugs on lipid homeostasis (peroxysom proliferation) is transmitted via a receptor protein that seems to be closely related to the endocrine system both functionally as well as phylogenetically; possible interferences with the neuroendocrine control of sex differentiation are also discussed. In invertebrates, tributyltin is known to effect the biosynthesis of steroidal sexual hormones. PCBs are suspected to be competitive inhibitors of the steroid catabolism. In order to identify potential risks caused by chemicals to the reproductive capacities of aquatic animals and to the quality of drinking water, methods should be established to detect endocrine disrupters at the various levels of the endocrine system.