Birth Control: polluting waters?

Tony Tessandori is a recent addition to the Anthropology department at the College. On Tuesday, April 21, the instructor gave a lecture for Earth Week titled “There’s something in the water…Oh, that’s just birth control pills.”

It’s important to keep in mind the context of this lecture, which is coming from a purely environmental standpoint. Tessandori said, “One thing that I think is important is that people know this talk is in no way advocating for or against birth control.”

The lecture took place in a conference room adjacent to the cafeteria, and was packed with students and faculty. Shocking photos of mutant frogs were splayed across the projector screen while Tessandori explained the significance of contaminants in the water, primarily focusing on the effects of synthetic, hormone-based birth control. Generally there should be a 50/50 split in the sex ratio of frogs and fellow amphibians, but what we’re witnessing is a trend far from what we expect to be normal.

A 70/30 split between female to male sex ratio has been observed and in some instances that number is growing. Fish, aquatic birds, and amphibians in particular, are extremely susceptible to environmental factors. In waters contaminated with synthetic hormone-based birth control, amphibious males are essentially becoming sterilized as ovarian tissue in their testes has developed. Worse yet, gender identification is becoming increasingly indistinguishable.

“Studies have shown,” Tessandori said, “that fish and amphibians are about 10 times more sensitive to estrogen from birth control pills than other estrogenic compounds.” Those other estrogenic compounds he’s talking about are the ones that are produced naturally and homogenously by humans and other living creatures.

It’s not just the birth control pill that’s causing the changes, but rather all synthetic hormonebased forms of birth control. Having the substance in our water is a concern for humans, especially fetuses and newborns. Since estrogenic chemicals in water can be linked to thyroid problems and adrenaline imbalance, we may also be susceptible to a variety of other problems such as reproductive tumors.

And according to Tessandori, factory runoff, farmland runoff, and polluted urbanized poor water quality is to blame.

“A large number of coastal regions are also significantly polluted.” he said.

While birth control hormones have their place culturally, ethically, and socially, they are, on average, over 200times higher than they need to be. Synthetic estrogen and progestin-only pills are finding their way into our water source. And many of the current filtration systems in place are not capable of keeping microscopic birth control particles out of the water.

What does this mean?

Well we’re essentially drinking, bathing, and swimming in birth control remnants along with a plethora of other contaminants.

So what can be done? Tessandori has a few ideas.

First of all, lobbying for improved sewage treatment could attain results. It’s plausible that adding another filter or bacteria wheel to sewer treatment would remove contaminates from our water. The process would be a little slower, but the result would be a reduction in pollutants. Throwing pills away in the toilet, he said, also exacerbates the current contamination. And finally, perhaps we can consider alternative forms of birth control so that we don’t continue to pollute our waters.