Green seems to be the color on everyone’s mind, and lately that has come to include birth control. A green contraceptive is something we should work toward but it won’t prevent the growing number of gender bending fish in our waterways.
Synthetic estrogen used in oral contraceptives contributes only 1% to the total amount of estrogens excreted by humans. Additionally, almost half of this synthetic estrogen is filtered out during our wastewater treatment processes. Of all the estrogen sent into our water supply through human biology, only a very minute fraction is synthetic. Clearly, there are other sources contributing to gender confusion in fish.
If we really care about our environment and our water supply, I’d like to suggest an alternative culprit: hamburgers. It turns out cows, chickens and pigs contribute an estimated 90% of estrogens to the environment. Yes, 90%. So if we really want to green our water supply, we need to start by greening our dinner. How? Well, first we’d stop pumping our livestock full of hormones or, at the very least, we would treat agriculture manure. Studies have shown that hormones from animal manure reach both surface and ground water and that livestock pumped full of hormones increase their excretion of these hormones up to six fold.
If we are going to be concerned about synthetic human estrogen in our water, we also need to pay attention to other likely culprits, and both industrial and agricultural sources need to be considered.
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I find it troubling that we have dramatized the contribution of estrogens in our environment to women on the pill. I’m not suggesting we should ignore the impact of estrogens in our environment. In fact, quite the opposite. Clearly, the types and sources of estrogens in the environment are diverse and cumulative. Natural estrogens (agriculture and natural human excretion) as well as synthetic estrogens and estrogen-mimicking compounds (other pharmaceutical uses, industrial chemicals, pesticides, plastics, etc) are present in our waterways and cannot be discounted as sources of the observed phenomena in fish, even at trace levels. What I am suggesting is that we stop the knee-jerk response that reducing estrogens is as simple as reducing women’s use of birth control pills. It is estimated that unregulated agricultural run off annually contributes 13 tons of hormones to our water sources. Clearly, we need to broaden the conversation.
What else can we do? First, we need to reform our chemical policy in the United States so that harmful estrogen-mimicking compounds found in our everyday products stay off the shelves. The burden cannot and should not be on individuals and communities to protect the health of their families. Instead, we need reform that requires pre-market safety testing of all our consumer goods and personal care products. Second, as the 50th anniversary of the pill is on the horizon, I’d like to ask my friends and allies to take some time to appreciate and even celebrate contraception. Modern contraception enables women to choose the number and timing of their children, which is central to our health and economic well-being. And, where all women have access to affordable contraception, birthrates decline and population growth slows. Slower population growth is not a panacea for today’s environmental problems, but it can ease pressure on natural systems that are reeling from stress. So, contraception is good for women—and for the planet.
In the meantime, we might think about forgoing that next hormone-riddled bacon cheeseburger.
References: Callantine MR, et al. "Fecal elimination of estrogens by cattle treated with diethylstilbestrol and hexestrol." Am J Vet Res. (1961) 22:462-465.