Birth Control Pills: Contraceptives and Pollutants

by Kim Nguyen on March 27, 2014



In 1960, birth control pills were approved for the first time for contraceptive use in the United States. Fast forward 54 years and now four out of every five sexually experienced women has used the pill.[i] They’ve become so popular that 80% of women are advocating that birth control pills should be covered by all insurance companies, that women should be able to have control over their reproductive systems. Unfortunately, there are many who still cannot afford birth control pills, and “half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.”[ii]

During a Ted Talks conference held in April of 2012, Melinda Gates argued that access to birth control should not be a controversial topic and that there should be “universal access to birth control that women want.”[iii] Gates goes on to say that for that to happen, “both rich and poor governments alike must make contraception a total priority.” However, needless to say, doing so would require a great amount of money. A typical woman on average spends 30 years trying to avoid pregnancy.[iv] So while purchasing birth control pills every month might not seem pricey at the time, those dollars quickly start to add up.

However, the matter of responsibility over birth control does not end there. Forbes calculated that, taking into account the environmental damage caused by birth control pills, women that are taking them should be paying a tax increase of around, say $1500 a year.[v]

That was not a typo.

Studies have shown that birth control pills are not only affecting the hormones of women, but also those of the aquatic wildlife as well. After being secreted from the female body, they enter the sewage system, pass through the filter system, and enter the water stream. The synthetic hormone in birth control pills, ethinyl estradiol (EE2), is believed to cause intersex in fish, a strange intermediate between being male and female, which interferes with their ability to reproduce. To understand the impact of intersex being caused by EE2, an experiment was conducted in Canada. It was found that after increasing EE2 levels in the water to 5 parts per trillion (read: a minute concentration), some fish populations collapsed entirely.[vi]

Now, let us return to that seemingly arbitrary number of $1500 in tax increases each year. In an effort to purify the water, the European Union proposed a bill in 2012 to upgrade the water sewage system to limit the concentration of EE2 to 0.035 parts per trillion. Doing so however would require $5 billion a year in order to run it. Assuming a “you break it, you pay for it” mentality, it was calculated that should the bill be passed, women in Europe taking birth control pills would be splitting the $5 billion amongst themselves, averaging to about $1500 each.

However, the bill was rejected. Instead, it was decided that the amount of EE2 would only be monitored but not limited. Richard Seeber, an Austrian member of the European Parliament, stated that the risks identified in the pharmaceutical substances do not outweigh the “importance of human health considerations.”[vii] So since human health considerations were deemed to be more important than wildlife health, the threat to aquatic wildlife is still there and more research is being done.

In a new study recently conducted just last month, scientists have found that estrogen might not only disrupt the reproductive system of fish but also their hearts.[viii] Scientists are beginning to believe that estrogenic compounds are contributing to improper heart development of fish. Dan Gorelick, the lead author of the study, admits that in addition to the estrogen in the water, there were also thousands of other chemicals. However, he also states that “we know from the lab that if we add a synthetic estrogen like BPA, or a natural estrogen, both of those preferentially target the heart valves. It’s not as simple as one class [of estrogen] or another.” Although it is not yet clear which type of estrogen is causing the failure of heart development additional experiments are being conducted, we do know that estrogen, no matter natural or synthetic, is impacting the wildlife.

The question that arises now is what will be done about it. There is an ongoing battle for women to be in control of their reproductive systems as Gates said. Or perhaps 54 years is too long, and we should be looking for another contraceptive to replace the pill. Or as the European Union has proposed, maybe we should improve our water filtering system. Putting aside the problem of money, what we need right now is an increased awareness in the effects of birth control pills, not just on our bodies but also on the environment as well.



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