Scientists discovered in 2005 that birth control chemicals were deforming fish in the nation’s waterways — a phenomenon known by science today as “fish feminization.”
The problems first made national news when strange intersex fish were found in pristine-looking Boulder Creek, in Colorado. The fish were the first thing that had ever frightened then 59-year-old University of Colorado biologist John Woodling during his scientific career.
Two years after finding the fish, hideously deformed mostly by steroid hormones that had seeped into the water from birth control pills and patches, lead study scientist David Norris, a University of Colorado physiology professor, told the Register that it appeared nobody cared.
“Where’s the outrage?” he asked.
Were birth control products too sacred to environmental activists to cause them concern?
Interviews with a variety of environmentalists revealed that Norris was correct: Nobody seemed to care.
Curt Cunningham, water quality issues chairman for the Rocky Mountain chapter of Sierra Club International, crusaded to get Boulder to remove fluoride from its drinking water, believing it had negative effects on the environment. But he had no intention of asking anyone to rethink the use of birth control patches and pills, despite their effects on fish.
“For many people it’s an economic necessity. It’s also a personal freedom issue,” Cunningham said, regarding birth control products.
Others told the Register they had more pressing concerns. Environmental activist Betty Ball said she was too busy with fighting “weed control chemicals and pesticides” to concern herself much with deformed fish.
Dave Georgis, who lobbied for Boulder County politicians to prohibit genetically modified crops, wasn’t fazed by the sexually modified fish and the link to birth control drugs.
“You can’t have 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.”
Five years after the discovery of deformed, intersex fish, some progress has been made and more is under way to address the problem of birth control chemicals in water. The Register asked Norris if he has seen any more concern since reporting a startling lack of outrage three years ago.
“It’s improving, though it has been slow,” Norris said. “There is a lot more recognition of the problem, at least.”
Catholics who hope the feminized fish findings might lead to less use of contraceptives may be disappointed.
The feminized-fish dilemma has led to discussions about upgrading sewage treatment plants and the need for stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding the removal of birth control chemicals and other pharmaceuticals before effluent goes into rivers and streams, instead of mainstream discussion of abstinence as an alternative to birth control.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in 2370, approves of “periodic continence” to regulate births, but calls artificial means of contraception “intrinsically evil.” Later, in 2415, in the context of “respect for the integrity of creation,” it also states that “use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come.”
The city of Boulder spent $50 million upgrading its sewage treatment facilities in 2008, and Norris said all early indications show the improvements have greatly reduced fish mutations. Norris believes treatment of wastewater isn’t the real solution, and advocates lifestyle changes — but not regarding birth control.
‘Canary in a Mine Shaft’
“I look at the problem of fish feminization in waterways as a canary in a mine shaft,” Norris said in a University of Colorado press release. “This is not the problem of water treatment plants; it’s our problem as human beings.”
He advocates protecting water and fish by avoiding antibacterial soaps and milk from cattle raised with growth hormones. But he won’t advocate using fewer birth control products, saying he’s concerned about “human overpopulation.”
When the Register asked EPA officials whether they would like humans to curtail use of contraceptive products, spokesman Jalil Isa issued a statement. It said, in part: “In September 2009, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced plans to strengthen our chemical management program and increase the pace of the agency’s efforts on chemicals of concern.”
Chemicals mentioned in the statement included chemical pesticides and phthalates used in plastics. The statement made no mention of concern about chemicals in birth control products that scientists link directly to the feminization of fish.
At least one organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, seems genuinely alarmed by the fact birth control chemicals are creating unnatural intersex fish.
“We know the pills are tiny, but they have a huge impact on aquatic wildlife,” said Alka Chandna, laboratory oversight specialist in PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department.
The organization issued the “Pharmaceuticals in the Water Supply” report after learning about fish feminization. The report quotes University of California-Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes referring to the problem as “chemical castration and feminization.”
It quotes David Walker, an environmental biologist at the University of Arizona, warning: “The female fish are becoming more masculine and the male fish are becoming more feminine over time. It is a possibility that some of the effects we see in these fish can also occur in humans.”
The PETA report questions whether sewage treatment upgrades will adequately protect aquatic wildlife.
Furthermore, it questions whether most communities will be able to afford elaborate upgrades. A sewage-treatment upgrade in affluent Orange County, Calif., for example, will cost more than $500 million.
PETA takes no official position on the use of contraceptives or other pharmaceuticals. But Chandna worries we may be trying to convenience ourselves a bit too much with little pills for all concerns.
“We tend to think we can take drugs for anything, but there are consequences to wanting quick fixes,” Chandna said. “We can make the choice to take a contraceptive drug. But fish also end up getting the drug, and all the consequences, without making a choice. It’s sobering.”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.