Contracepting the Environment:
Environmentalists Mum on Poisoned Streams
When EPA-funded scientists at the University of Colorado studied fish in a pristine mountain stream known as Boulder Creek two years ago, they were shocked. Randomly netting 123 trout and other fish downstream from the city’s sewer plant, they found that 101 were female, 12 were male, and 10 were strange “intersex” fish with male and female features.
It’s “the first thing that I’ve seen as a scientist that really scared me,” said then 59-year-old University of Colorado biologist John Woodling, speaking to the Denver Post in 2005.
They studied the fish and decided the main culprits were estrogens and other steroid hormones from birth control pills and patches, excreted in urine into the city’s sewage system and then into the creek.
Woodling, University of Colorado physiology professor David Norris, and their EPA-study team were among the first scientists in the country to learn that a slurry of hormones, antibiotics, caffeine and steroids is coursing down the nation’s waterways, threatening fish and contaminating drinking water.
Since their findings, stories have been emerging everywhere.
Scientists in western Washington found that synthetic estrogen — a common ingredient in oral contraceptives — drastically reduces the fertility of male rainbow trout.
Doug Myers, wetlands and habitat specialist for Washington State’s Puget Sound Action Team, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that in frogs, river otters and fish, scientists are “finding the presence of female hormones making the male species less male.”
This summer, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the American Pharmacists Association will begin a major public awareness campaign regarding contamination that’s resulting from soaps and pharmaceuticals, including birth control.
What the Boulder scientists discovered, however, is that few people care.
Or, if they’re worried, they’re in denial.
“Nobody is getting passionately concerned about it,” Norris said. “It makes no sense to me at all that people aren’t more concerned.”
When the story of his finding hit Denver and Boulder newspapers, Norris anticipated an immediate response from environmentalists, who define the politics of Boulder and are known to picket in the streets demanding ends to questionable farming practices, global warming and pesticide treatments.
To the professor’s surprise, however, the hormone story was mostly ignored.
Two years later, environmental groups have failed to take up the cause of saving Boulder Creek and its fish from hormone pollution.
Dave Georgis, who directs the Colorado Genetic Engineering Action Network, took to the streets of Boulder on several occasions to hold signs demanding that Boulder County regulate genetically modified crops from existence.
When asked about the genetically modified fish and the contaminated drinking water, however, he said: “It just has so much competition out there for stuff to work on.”
He told the Boulder Weekly that nobody needed to consider curtailing use of artificial contraceptives out of concern for the creek.
“You can’t have a zero impact, and this is one of the many, many impacts we have on the environment in everyday life,” Georgis said. “Nobody is to blame for this, and I don’t have a solution.”
Norris, an environmentalist and birth-control advocate, said that until society achieves better sewage filtration and invents harmless contraceptives, “there’s always abstinence, and we know that it’s 100% effective.”
George Harden [board member of a society of social scientists, Steubenville, Ohio]: “If you’re killing mosquitoes to save people from the West Nile virus, you can count on secular environmentalists to lay down in front of the vapor truck, claiming some potential side effect that might result from the spray,” Harden said. “But if birth control deforms fish — backed by the proof of an EPA study — and threatens the drinking supply, mum will be the word.”
Harden said the growing knowledge of estrogen-polluted water may expose the cultural double-standards that protect birth control from the scrutiny given to other chemicals and drugs.
“It’s going to start looking funny,” Harden said. “The radical environmentalist won’t eat a corn chip if the corn contacted a pesticide. But they view it a sacred right and obligation to consume synthetic chemicals that alter a woman’s natural biological functions, even if this practice threatens innocent aquatic life downstream.”
Despite growing and nationwide knowledge of birth control pollution in rivers and streams, leading environmentalists remain unfazed — even in Boulder, where it’s been known about for years.
Curt Cunningham, water quality issues chairman for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Sierra Club International, worked tirelessly last year on a ballot measure that would force the City of Boulder to remove fluoride from drinking water, because some believe it has negative effects on health and the environment that outweigh its benefits. But Cunningham said he would never consider asking women to curtail use of birth control pills and patches — despite what effect these synthetics have on rivers, streams and drinking water.
“I suspect people would not take kindly to that,” Cunningham said. “For many people it’s an economic necessity. It’s also a personal freedom issue.”
As nonviolence coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Betty Ball has taken to the streets with signs in protest of genetically modified crops. She lobbies Boulder’s city and county officials to stop spraying mosquitoes in their effort to fight the deadly West Nile virus — a disease that killed seven Boulder residents and caused permanent disabilities in others during the summer of 2004.
“Right now we’re worried about weed control chemicals and pesticides,” said Ball, when asked whether her organization would address the hormone problem in Boulder Creek. “The water contamination is a problem, but we don’t have the time and resources to address it right now.”
Norris said hormones have been detected in municipal water supplies, but he said the jury’s out on the long-term effects the chemicals might have on humans and human sexuality.
Research by New Jersey health officials and Rutgers University scientists found traces of birth control hormones and other prescription drugs and preservatives in municipal tap water throughout the state in 2003, and they don’t know the effects long-term exposure may have.
“The question is, ‘Is this something the body deals with at low levels, metabolizes and there’s no problem? Or is this something that accumulates in the body?’ We just don’t know,” said Brian Buckley, the Rutg
ers chemist who led the four-year drinking water study [North Jersey News]. “To be honest, we are just starting to deal with the question.”
Rebecca Goldburg, a New Jersey biologist working with Environmental Defense, told the North Jersey News: “I’m not sure I want even low levels of birth control pills in my daughter’s drinking water.”
Ball said she’s alarmed by the sex-altered fish in Boulder Creek, and worries about the ramifications for humans.
“Unfortunately, it is emerging as a major issue in creeks and waterways all over the earth, and we’re seeing more and more anomalies, not just with fish but with frogs and other aquatic life. I think it’s a precursor to what will happen to humans who drink contaminated water,” Ball said.
Ball said she’s shocked that citizens of Boulder haven’t organized and taken to the streets, as many Colorado environmentalists did upon learning that farmers and agri-businesses were genetically altering crops. She said the major source of contamination that’s mutating Boulder Creek fish — birth control — makes it a political hot potato.
To avoid genetically modified crops, Ball said, one needed only to buy organic, genetically modified organism-free products at health food stores. Asking residents to stop polluting water with hormones, however, “gets into the bedroom.” “I’m not going there,” Ball said. “This involves people’s personal lives, child bearing issues, sex lives and personal choices."
“Apathy is the fear of sticking your toe in, for fear it will change your life. Sometimes positive change does require a change in lifestyle.”
[July 15-21, 2007 (Posted 7/10/07), NCR, Wayne Laugesen, Boulder CO]
Media Takes Notice
“Chemicals in the contraceptive pill and other products are altering the reproductive processes of fish.”
— Metro UK, March 2007
“Many streams, rivers and lakes already bear warning signs that the fish caught within them may also be carrying enough chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen to cause breast cancer cells to grow.” — Scientific American, April, 2007
“In the Potomac River, male smallmouth bass are sprouting eggs, and scientists blame pollution and the Pill.”
— Stanford Daily, July 5, 2007
Canadian scientists have found that water in a pond (created for this experiment) contaminated with estrogen from birth-control pills is having disastrous effects on male fish species.
Studies have shown that male fish, from tadpoles to lake trout, are becoming "feminized", meaning that egg proteins are growing abnormally in their bodies, rendering them incapable of reproducing. In fact, the entire Fathead minnow population was nearly wiped out in this pond. "It's a feminization…it's enough to be concerned about what's going on in the bigger picture (from estrogen)", said karen Kidd, a research scientist at the Canadian Freshwater Institute.
Now the U.S. Geological Survey's Columbia Environmental Research Center is studying whether estrogen-contaminated water is affecting human males as well.
As early as 1992, the Cincinnati Enquirer [11Sept92] reported that the sperm count in healthy males had dropped by half in the past 50 years, according to a global review of 61 studies involving nearly 15,000 men. Also, the risk of developing testicular cancer is up by 50% over the past 25 years, although neither have been attributed to estrogen contamination at this time.
Serious consideration should also be given to estrogen's effect on the male offspring of women who are on the birth control pill. Of the 10.4 million pill users in America, over 5 percent, or one-half million, get pregnant each year (i.e. the pill fails) according to the FDA. How does pill estrogen affect these children conceived during pill use?
We know today that women who were given Diethylstilbestrol (DES) in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, have a 35% increased risk of developing breast cancer. Their daughters (and in some cases, their sons) have a higher rate of infertility and increased risk of unsuccessful pregnancies. A rare form of vaginal cancer in the daughters of women who were using DES has been attributed to this therapy…
[Compiled by Human Life Alliance, HLA Action News, Summer 2003 from reports in Couple to Couple League's MedWatch, the St. Paul Pioneer Press 28June2003; HLI Special Report, 1998, and Aging Today, May/June 2003]
HUMAN ESTROGENS FOUND TO BE POLLUTING THE ENVIRONMENT
Safe, healthy, effective…and now add environmentally friendly to the list of attributes for Natural Family Planning.
This distinction comes amidst the growing realization of environmental pollution caused by birth control pills and other commonly used pharmaceuticals.
The alarm was first sounded in Switzerland and Europe, but recently has come home to the U.S. as researchers have shown that human estrogens in wastewater effluents cause sex changes in fish living in affected areas.
Endocrine disrupters include a broad category of chemical compounds that mimic or block the action of hormones. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is launching a massive program to screen 15,000 chemicals widely used in household or industrial products including paints, detergents, lubricants, cosmetics, textiles, pesticides, and plastics for endocrine effects.
However, a large part of the problem may be much less mysterious.
Human estrogens in the form of 17b-estradiol and its metabolites, as well as ethinyl estradiol and mestranol — commonly used in birth control pills and hormone replacement therapies — have been detected in U.S. wastewaters.
Up to 30 other pharmaceuticals, ranging from commonly used drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen to clofibrate (a cholesterol-lowering drug) and cyclophosphamide (a drug used in chemotherapy), have been detected in the environment. Antibiotics used not only in human therapy, but also in veterinary medicine, animal husbandry, and aquiculture can be found at levels that can cause development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In fish, estrogen-contaminated water has the effect
of producing in males a yolk protein called vintellogenin, that is normally produced only in females. Sex changes caused by estrogens in other aquatic animals are also suspected. The human health effects from long-term exposure to low levels of estrogens are unknown. Although the risks are thought to be small, it is possible that mixtures of substances may have an addictive or even synergistic effect.
Such concerns are prompting action by regulatory officials in Europe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently relaxed manufacturer's environmental reporting requirements unless drug levels are expected to exceed the part per billion level. However, scientists have observed vitellogenin in male fish at estrogen concentrations between 1 and 10 parts per trillion.
Research is just beginning to evaluate the effectiveness of wastewater treatment processes for the removal of pharmaceuticals from water. Evidence is that synthetic estrogens are more stable and are not removed by typical wastewater treatment processes. Advanced processes using membrane filters are effective but are commonly not used, and it would be expensive to install them nationwide. Requirements for environmental impact assessments for drug manufacturers should be tightened to include low-level waterborne fate-and-transport studies and possible control measures. Moreover, drug companies could be required to pay for clean-up costs and treatment upgrades when pharmaceuticals are found to harm humans or the environment.
…Previous concerns about moral ecology that perserves the sanctity of the marriage covenant and produces a wholesome family environment now can be extended to protecting our physical environment. Because the practice of NFP involves no drugs, it respects not only a woman's body, but the world around it.
[Mark LeChevallier is a microbiology researcher in New Jersey; CCL Family Foundations, May-June 1999]