Is birth control in our water destroying the environment?
This post was originally published at RH Reality Check and is reprinted with their kind permission.
We were sitting on the beach in our brightly colored lounge chairs, sipping piña coladas and enjoying the sun as I reassured my friend Alycia that it was completely OK to use birth control continuously to “skip” your period. I was on vacation, yes, but debunking myths about birth control is not just part of my 9-to-5 job, it’s part of my life. As a reproductive health and justice advocate, I often find myself answering questions from friends and family about birth-control options, fertility, and sexual health.
So I wasn’t surprised when my friend Meghan, a well-informed environmentalist and feminist, asked me, “Is it true that birth control in our water is destroying the environment?”
It’s an unsettling question. Hormonal birth control, like any other modern convenience, carries with it an environmental “footprint.” As a supporter of reproductive health and environmental sustainability, I take the question of birth control’s impact on the environment seriously, as I do the environmental impact of the food I eat, the transportation I use, and the products I buy. However, I also know that birth control is an easy target: a well-known, unfortunately politicized, and persistently controversial topic that makes for tantalizing headlines even when the evidence backing up a claim is thin.
Navigating the minefield of myths, misinformation, and urban legends surrounding sexuality and contraception can be challenging, especially when the science around an issue is complicated and opponents of birth control use that confusion to their advantage.
This is a case in point: Claims that birth-control pills are the sole or primary source of synthetic estrogen in water and therefore the cause of reproductive problems in fish or people misrepresent the science, plain and simple. New findings from researchers at UCSF help explain why.
For the past several years, scientists have linked reproductive abnormalities in fish to the presence of estrogen-mimicking chemicals in rivers and streams. Over the last few decades, scientists have also found increases in several conditions related to human infertility, and the evidence suggests that estrogen-mimicking chemicals in the environment are at least partially to blame. When these trends are reported to the public, birth-control pills (which contain one kind of synthetic estrogen) are frequently singled out as the culprit. National news outlets have reported this, the Vatican has decried it, and Stephen Colbert even joked about it on his show. Just this summer, the anti-choice fringe group American Life League staged protests at Planned Parenthood clinics with the theme “The Pill Kills the Environment.”
Colbert talking about intersex fish and “ladypee” filled with birth-control hormones may get hits on YouTube, but it does not accurately describe the state of the science. The estrogen found in birth-control pills, patches, and rings (known as EE2) is only one of thousands of synthetic estrogens that may be found in our water, and the contribution of EE2 to the total presence of estrogen in water is relatively small. The other sources of synthetic estrogens in our water include industrial chemicals commonly used in manufacturing (like BPA), synthetic estrogens in fertilizer spread over crops, and the synthetic estrogens pumped into livestock, including dairy cows, who are fed hormones to increase milk production. As an example, the volume of veterinary estrogens given to livestock each year in the U.S. is five times the volume of synthetic estrogen consumed by women who use birth control.
Blaming birth control for the presence of estrogen in water is a bit like blaming the mess in the kitchen on your housemate who’s never home. Sure, she may leave a plate on the counter once in a while when she’s in town — but your real problem is your other roommate, the one who has parties every weekend and pizza boxes and beer cans stacked to the ceiling. Blaming birth control is a distraction from the egregious and unchecked use of synthetic estrogens by chemical companies and factory farms. It’s also a ploy to drive a wedge between environmental and reproductive-health advocates.
And I’m not buying it.
Demonizing birth control will do nothing to improve our environment or reproductive-health outcomes. Yes — we continue to need research and development of safe, effective, and environmentally sound contraceptives, but we also need better water treatment, regulation of farm runoff, and common-sense limits on the use of toxic chemicals [PDF] in the manufacture of products we use every day.
The best way to protect our environment and reproductive health from chemicals is to tackle industrial and agricultural pollution at the source, and to increase access to safe and effective contraception. After all, when women are able to make their own decisions about whether and when to have children, they, their families, and the environment all reap the benefits.