BOULDER, Colo. — When EPA-funded scientists at the University of Colorado studied fish in a pristine mountain stream known as Boulder Creek two years ago, they were shocked. Randomly netting 123 trout and other fish downstream from the city’s sewer plant, they found that 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,” said then 59-year-old University of Colorado biologist John Woodling, speaking to the Denver Post in 2005.
They studied the fish and decided the main culprits were estrogens and other steroid hormones from birth control pills and patches, excreted in urine into the city’s sewage system and then into the creek.
Woodling, University of Colorado physiology professor David Norris, and their EPA-study team were among the first scientists in the country to learn that a slurry of hormones, antibiotics, caffeine and steroids is coursing down the nation’s waterways, threatening fish and contaminating drinking water.
Since their findings, stories have been emerging everywhere. Scientists in western Washington found that synthetic estrogen — a common ingredient 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.”
This summer, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the American Pharmacists Association will begin a major public awareness campaign regarding contamination that’s resulting from soaps and pharmaceuticals, including birth control.
What the Boulder scientists discovered, however, is that few people care.
Or, if they’re worried, they’re in denial.
“Nobody is getting passionately concerned about it,” Norris said. “It makes no sense to me at all that people aren’t more concerned.”
When the story of his finding hit Denver and Boulder newspapers, Norris anticipated an immediate response from environmentalists, who define the politics of Boulder and are known to picket in the streets demanding ends to questionable farming practices, global warming and pesticide treatments.
To the professor’s surprise, however, the hormone story was mostly ignored.
Two years later, environmental groups have failed to take up the cause of saving Boulder Creek and its fish from hormone pollution.
Dave Georgis, who directs the Colorado Genetic Engineering Action Network, took to the streets of Boulder on several occasions to hold signs demanding that Boulder County regulate genetically modified crops from existence.
When asked about the genetically modified fish and the contaminated drinking water, however, he said: “It just has so much competition out there for stuff to work on.”
He told the Boulder Weekly that nobody needed to consider curtailing use of artificial contraceptives out of concern for the creek.
“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.”
Norris, an environmentalist and birth-control advocate, said that until society achieves better sewage filtration and invents harmless contraceptives, “there’s always abstinence, and we know that it’s 100% effective.”
To preserve the self-giving nature of the sexual act, which must always be open to life, the Catechism teaches that it is wrong to use contraception. Couples may space their children for just reasons in ways using natural family planning, which involves observation of signs in the woman’s body.
Says the Catechism: “The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception)” (No. 2399).
But Catholics shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for environmentalists to advocate a boycott of contraceptives, said George Harden, a board member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, based in Steubenville, Ohio.
“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 said. “But if birth control deforms fish — backed by the proof of an EPA study — and threatens the drinking supply, mum will be the word.”
Harden said the growing knowledge of estrogen-polluted water may expose the cultural double-standards that protect birth control from the scrutiny given to other chemicals and drugs.
“It’s going to start looking funny,” Harden said. “The radical environmentalist won’t eat a corn chip if the corn contacted a pesticide. But they view it a sacred right and obligation to consume synthetic chemicals that alter a woman’s natural biological functions, even if this practice threatens innocent aquatic life downstream.”
Despite growing and nationwide knowledge of birth control pollution in rivers and streams, leading environmentalists remain unfazed — even in Boulder, where it’s been known about for years.
Curt Cunningham, water quality issues chairman for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Sierra Club International, worked tirelessly last year on a ballot measure that would force the City of Boulder to remove fluoride from drinking water, because some believe it has negative effects on health and the environment that outweigh its benefits. But Cunningham said he would never consider asking women to curtail use of birth control pills and patches — despite what effect these synthetics have on rivers, streams and drinking water.
“I suspect people would not take kindly to that,” Cunningham said. “For many people it’s an economic necessity. It’s also a personal freedom issue.”
As nonviolence coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, Betty Ball has taken to the streets with signs in protest of genetically modified crops. She lobbies Boulder’s city and county officials to stop spraying mosquitoes in their effort to fight the deadly West Nile virus — a disease that killed seven Boulder residents and caused permanent disabilities in others during the summer of 2004.
“Right now we’re worried about weed control chemicals and pesticides,” said Ball, when asked whether her organization would address the hormone problem in Boulder Creek. “The water contamination is a problem, but we don’t have the time and resources to address it right now.”
Norris said hormones have been detected in municipal water supplies, but he said the jury’s out on the long-term effects the chemicals might have on humans and human sexuality.
Research by New Jersey health officials and Rutgers University scientists found traces of birth control hormones and other prescription drugs and preservatives in municipal tap water throughout the state in 2003, and they don’t know the effects long-term exposure may have.
“The question is, ‘Is this something the body deals with at low levels, metabolizes and there’s no problem? Or is this something that accumulates in the body?’ We just don’t know,” said Brian Buckley, the Rutgers chemist who led the four-year drinking water study, in North Jersey News. “To be honest, we are just starting to deal with the question.”
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.”
Ball said she’s alarmed by the sex-altered fish in Boulder Creek, and worries about the ramifications for humans.
“Unfortunately, it is emerging as a major issue in creeks and waterways all over the earth, and we’re seeing more and more anomalies, not just with fish but with frogs and other aquatic life. I think it’s a precursor to what will happen to humans who drink contaminated water,” Ball said.
Ball said she’s shocked that citizens of Boulder haven’t organized and taken to the streets, as many Colorado environmentalists did upon learning that farmers and agri-businesses were genetically altering crops. She said the major source of contamination that’s mutating Boulder Creek fish — birth control — makes it a political hot potato.
To avoid genetically modified crops, Ball said, one needed only to buy organic, genetically modified organism-free products at health food stores. Asking residents to stop polluting water with hormones, however, “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.”
writes from Boulder, Colorado.Media Takes Notice
“Chemicals in the contraceptive pill and other products are altering the reproductive processes of fish.”
— Metro UK, March 2007
“Many streams, rivers and lakes already bear warning signs that the fish caught within them may also be carrying enough chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen to cause breast cancer cells to grow.”
— Scientific American, April, 2007
“In the Potomac River, male smallmouth bass are sprouting eggs, and scientists blame pollution and the Pill.”
— Stanford Daily, July 5, 2007
CNS photo by Mike Crupi, Catholic Courie