Birth Control Pollution
(by Larry Plachno)Move over global warming and engine exhaust emissions. Some people are now naming pollution from birth control pills as the worst problem facing our society. In addition to harming fish and ecosystems, it has seeped into our drinking water, has affected our children and may be causing serious medical problems. What we already know about the situation is scary, what we do not know is terrifying.
As early as 1976 and 1977, U.S. researchers found medications and other substances in samples of water from a sewage treatment plant in Kansas City. In the 1990s, environmental scientists in Germany found chemicals in the groundwater under sewage treatment plants. The first nationwide study of pharmaceuticals in U.S. waters took place in 1999 and 2000 when a USGS research team led by Herb Buxton tested water from 139 streams in 30 states. Eighty percent of the streams were contaminated with pharmaceuticals and one stream tested positive for 38 different substances.
David Norris, a University of Colorado physiologist, was involved in a 2005 study of Boulder Creek funded by EPA. Upstream of the Boulder sewage treatment plant, the fish were normal with equal numbers of male and female. However, of the 123 trout and other fish found downstream of the plant he discovered 101 female, 12 male and 10 were a mixture of male and female. Something was turning male fish into female fish. They decided that the main culprits were estrogens and other steroid hormones from birth control pills and patches that were excreted into the city’s sewage system and went into the creek.
Sewage treatment plants have safeguards that remove bacteria and toxins but chemicals can slip right through the treatment process. Worse yet, some researchers are concerned that the microorganisms in sewage systems may actually activate hormones.
Similar problems have been surfacing in other areas. In Maryland, synthetic estrogen has drastically reduced the fertility of male rainbow trout. In Washington State’s Puget Sound, female hormones in the water are making the males of frogs, river otters and fish less male. A test in Canada by University of New Brunswick exotoxicologist Karen Kidd in 2001 and 2003 used the type of estrogen found in birth control pills. She found male fish of all types developed some female tissue and that the flathead minnow population went to almost zero because of disrupted reproductive abilities. Chris Metcalfe, professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University in Ontario conducted lab experiments on aquarium fish. He found that even very low levels of the estrogen found in birth control pills caused intersex and altered sex ratios in the fish.
From the sewage treatment plants to the rivers and streams, the estrogen then finds its way into our drinking water. Research by New Jersey health officials and Rutgers University scientists found birth control hormones and prescription drugs in municipal tap water throughout the state in 2003.
Part of the problem is that tons of synthetic and pharmaceutical estrogens are administered to women in quantities much larger than their bodies ever produced metabolically. The natural level of estrogen in an adult female is about 2-20 ppt (parts per trillion) but the level in birth control pills can amount to 300,000 ppt for the average woman. Levels of estrogen as low as 40 to 500 ppt have been linked to breast cancer and levels of estrogen-like chemicals at 2,000 ppt will produce abnormalities in the reproductive systems of clinical rats.
Excessive estrogen affects women the most, causing health problems such as auto-immune disorders like lupus, fibroid tumors, breast and uterine cancer, osteoporosis, decreased sex drive, depression and irritability. It is also linked to prostate and testicular cancer in men. In the 1940s, Alexander Lipshuts demonstrated that a continuous weak estrogenic stimulus was immensely effective in producing first fibromas, then cancer, in one organ after another. In spite of the popular use of estrogens, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) of the Department of Health and Human Services includes several types of estrogen and synthetic estrogens on its list of substances known to be human carcinogens. Several places have banned the use of meat produced with estrogen and growth hormones because they were deemed to cause cancer.
How does this estrogen affect our families and our neighbors? Studies have shown that the developing brain exhibits specific and often narrow windows during which exposure to endocrine disruptions can produce permanent changes in its structure or function. Since birth control pills became popular in the United States our daughters are statistically reaching puberty as much as three or four years earlier, most likely because of exposure to estrogen. If estrogen can change the sex of male fish, what is it doing to our sons? How much of the homosexual movement is caused by estrogen in our drinking water? Since birth control pills became popular, hypospadias (a defect in the male urinary system) has nearly doubled in newborn boys in the United States. This problem is linked to insufficient male hormone nine to 12 weeks after conception.
In nature and a normal pregnancy and birth, estrogen is not a problem. Increased estrogen in the mother halts the growth of breast tissues and replaces them with milk-producing tissues. However, if the pregnancy is stopped short by abortion, or if breast-feeding is not used, then the excessive estrogen level in the blood can promote breast tissues to grow abnormally into cancerous cells.
Particularly troubling is the fact that breast, cervix and prostrate cancers have increased approximately 50% in Western Europe since the introduction of birth control pills. Several researchers blame estrogen from birth control pills for this increase in cancer. They point out that in both Poland, the most Catholic country in Europe, and in Japan, where contraceptives and premarital sex are frowned upon, the cancer rate is much lower.
Why is it that we hear so little of this problem with estrogen from birth control pills and patches? An obvious reason is that the research on this topic is still very new and the impact of excess estrogen on our society is not yet fully known. New testing equipment only became available a decade ago to check for the level of estrogens in rivers, ground water and drinking water.
Another reason is that birth control advocates are putting forth a cultural double standard. When faced with decisions and actions that can impact society or other people, we have a choice of being unselfish and pro-society or being permissive and pro-choice. They feel that others should be pro-society and refrain from causing exhaust emissions and global warming. However, they think they have a right to be pro-choice about birth control chemicals regardless of who gets hurt.
A third reason is that estrogen is often said to be the most prescribed drug in the United States. Some people are equating the sale of estrogens by pharmaceutical companies to the sale of cigarettes by the tobacco companies. Both create corporate profits and both are linked to cancer. The pharmaceutical companies are happy to treat estrogen-induced depression with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft or other products they sell. Worse yet, a woman can go to her doctor with symptoms of a hormonal imbalance, sudden weight gain or loss, or lessened sex drive, all of which can be caused by too much estrogen in her system. An unknowing MD may well prescribe more estrogen, thus increasing her problems instead of helping her.
When is the last time you checked the estrogen level in your drinking water?