Skip to content

Birth control pills spark an environmental debate

lc_birth_control_pills_1.jpg

Some experts are blaming birth control pills for contaminated water. (Photo by Lisa Cupido)

Wherever possible, Tina Casale switches to compact fluorescent light bulbs; she also recycles daily, rides in carpools or walks when she can, and, as a third-grade teacher, has made it a priority to ensure that global warming is a frequent topic in her science discussions.

But in the eyes of some activists, Casale could be doing more to save the environment: Namely, tossing out her birth control pills.

Birth control pills, like batteries and baby bottles, have become the latest item in American homes to become a focus of environmental and health concerns. As scientists debate the effects of synthetic hormones that are flushed into waterways, the potential threat has sparked a clash between advocates and critics of the pill.

“I’ve heard a little bit about the bad things that birth control can do to the environment,” said Casale, 26, who lives in New York City. “If it’s causing major problems, I guess I would stop. But, to me, the health effects of the pill are a much greater concern than the fate of fish.”

In 2003, a group of scientists in Washington state made headlines when they discovered that traces of synthetic estrogen in the state’s rivers had reduced the fertility of male fish. Hormonal birth control pills and patches were blamed. Two years later, a team of scientists funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found trout with both female and male characteristics. The culprit, again, was synthetic estrogen.

Dr. David Norris, a physiology professor at the University of Colorado, said it is not just the possible negative effects that estrogen is having on aquatic environments that concerns him as much as the exposure of these hormones to humans, especially fetuses and newborns. According to Norris, numerous reports show that estrogenic chemicals in water can result in thyroid problems and an adrenaline imbalance. Thyroid inhibitors are of major concern because they affect the nervous system’s development and can cause permanent mental retardation.

Although Norris points out that certain foods, plastics, cosmetics, personal-care products and animal wastes are also causing water contamination, studies in Boulder Creek, Colo., have shown that fish are about 10 times more sensitive to the contribution of estrogen from birth control pills than they are to estradiol, the type of natural estrogen excreted by animals like cows.

The National Catholic Register and WorldNet Daily, a conservative Web publication, seized on the findings, the latter calling birth control pills “poison.” The discovery left some environmentally-conscious women shaking their heads, unsure of what to make of all this talk of genetically-mutated fish and unsafe drinking water.

“It gets me angry,” said Tracy Oetting, 47, an environmental and political activist from Washington State. “It appears that there is no concern for women or the environment if everyone is OK with the eco-damage that hormones can do to women, men, fish and animals.”

Laurel Butler, 60, a New York member of the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization, says she doesn’t believe in infringing on other people’s rights to make decisions. But if birth control pills are proven to be the culprit, she says she would stand by a law that protects the environment against estrogen.

“Why aren’t women in this generation doing more to protect the environment?” Butler said. “You’ve got a population screaming for instant, easy birth control and pharmaceutical companies answering to their demands. Who is responsible for the environment?”

The discourse about hormone-free waters has extended to online message boards and other sites. One group on Facebook started an Anti-Estrogens Campaign. On its home page, the small group shares claims that a decrease in human sperm count over the years is a result of hormones in drinking water and urges women to stop taking the pill if they’re not in a relationship.

But many women and women’s groups are not buying into the message.

“It sounds to me like this is a pollution issue rather than a birth control issue,” said Kaycie Rene Booher, 20, a student at the University of Central Missouri. “People are jumping for a chance to discredit birth control as an important option for women’s health and safety.”

Heather Trim, the Urban Bays and Toxics Program Manager at the People for Puget Sound in Washington, warns women that there is no evidence in the United States of the human impact of contaminated estrogen water and that women should not discard their pills just yet.

“Estrogen is also found in products like hair straighteners and plastics,” said Trim. “It’s not necessarily just birth control.”

Paige Novak, as associate professor of engineering at the University of Minnesota, agrees. “There isn’t a whole lot of funding going toward updating waste center treatments,” she said. “The problem might be resolved just by updating the plants.”

Amy Allina, the program director of the National Women’s Health Network, says women should be aware that some forms of contraception, such as the patch and vaginal ring, embed more hormones into the environment because they are discarded directly into the garbage after use. The competition among pharmaceutical companies for a slice of the oral contraceptive market is so fierce, she said, that the development of an “eco-friendly” birth control pill could be just around the corner. Bayer and Pfizer, two leading makers of birth control pills, did not respond to requests for comment.

Allina says it is not known whether the benefits of the pill outweigh any negative environmental impact it might have “Unfortunately, women need to make a decision based on imperfect information,” she said.

E-mail: lc2444@columbia.edu