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While environmentalists are usually vocal about perceived threats ranging from pesticides to global warming, there is a silence when it comes to one threat already harming the water supply: hormones from birth-control pills.
According to the National Catholic Register, EPA-funded scientists at the University of Colorado studied fish in a mountain stream near Boulder, Colo., two years ago.
When they netted 123 trout and other fish downstream from the city’s sewer plant, they found 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,” university biologist John Woodling told the Denver Post.
The Denver Post published this graphic in October 2004 featuring results of a study showing how fish near Boulder, Colo., had their sex impacted by estrogen from birth-control products in local waters. Figures were from the University of Colorado and the Colorado Division of Wildlife
The main culprits were found to be estrogens and other steroid hormones from birth-control pills and patches that ultimately ended up in the creek after being excreted in urine into the city’s sewers.
The Register says Woodling, University of Colorado physiology professor David Norris, and the EPA team were among the first scientists in the U.S. to learn a cocktail of hormones, antibiotics, caffeine and steroids is flowing through the nation’s waterways, threatening fish and contaminating drinking water.
Univ. of Colorado physiology professor David Norris
“Nobody is getting passionately concerned about it,” Norris said. “It makes no sense to me at all that people aren’t more concerned.”
The problem is not just limited to Boulder. Similar stories have been reported from coast to coast.
In western Washington, experts found synthetic estrogen – commonly found 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.”
Two years after the Boulder findings, there has been no effort among environmentalists to stop the estrogen pollution of Boulder Creek.
Dave Georgis, director of the Colorado Genetic Engineering Action Network which has been vocal against genetically modified crops, said, “It just has so much competition out there for stuff to work on.”
He told the Boulder Weekly nobody needed to think about cutting back on birth control for the creek’s sake.
“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.”
George Harden, a board member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, based in Steubenville, Ohio, says people should not hold their breath for action to be taken.
“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 told the Register. “But if birth control deforms fish – backed by the proof of an EPA study – and threatens the drinking supply, mum will be the word.”
In New Jersey, traces of birth-control hormones and other prescription drugs were found in municipal tap water in 2003, and scientists were just beginning to look into the issue of impact on the human body.
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.”
Betty Ball of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center suggests people eat organic foods, but says asking them to stop polluting water with hormones “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. Maybe people are saying, ‘O my God, what do we do about this?’ 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.”
The issue is beginning to be talked about in some online blogs.
In ThePolitic.com, Shane Edwards writes, “To give this publicity would pit nature against consequence-free sex, and that just won’t happen. But what disturbs me about this even more than the environmental impact (and the reality that this will NEVER be dealt with because of its political ramifications) is what this is doing to us. I mean, if these effects are happening with fish and frogs, what is happening to us?”