Birth control does not just reduce the fertility of humans; it also saps the ability of fish to reproduce. So many birth control chemicals have ended up in Canadians waters that they may cause the fathead minnow to go extinct, researchers warn.
A new study, which was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B on October 13, found that introducing the common birth control pill drug 17α-ethynyloestradiol (EE2) into a lake at a level similar to levels that have been found in treated sewage water, led to the near total extermination of the lake's population of fathead minnows, because it interfered with the fish's ability to reproduce.
A Canadian research team has published a report on a study they initiated in 2001 that provides conclusive evidence that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in already-treated municipal sewage directly affects the reproductive success of fish. They specifically mention the synthetic estrogen used in the birth control pill.
In 2001 to 2003, a group led by University of New Brunswick ecotoxicologist Karen Kidd spiked the water of a lake in the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.
The most alarming finding was that the lake’s population of the common fathead minnow plummeted from thousands to almost zero, because the estrogen so thoroughly disrupted the minnow’s reproductive abilities.
“Right away, the male fish started to respond to the estrogen exposure by producing egg yolk proteins and shortly after that they started to develop eggs,” Kidd said in a Canadian Press report. “They were being feminized.”
“It was really unexpected that they would react so quickly and so dramatically,” she said. “The crash in the population was very evident and very dramatic, and very rapid, and related directly to the estrogen addition.”
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While the study found that “algal, microbial, zooplankton and benthic invertebrate communities showed no declines in abundance during three summers of EE2 additions,” the research team observed that the body condition of male lake trout and of male and female white suckers declined as a direct effect of the introduction of the hormone.
Once the minnow population crashed, the lake trout numbers also declined by more than 40 percent.
The study also noted that insect populations exploded when there were no more minnows to feed on the emerging larvae.
However, Dr. Kidd reported that once the synthetic estrogen – which scientists introduced at a level of six parts per trillion – was no longer present in the lake, the minnow population was able to recover.
The study concluded that while the introduction of estrogen into the small lake had disastrous effects on the ecosystem of the lake, the small scale of the research may lead to an underestimation of the true consequences of hormonal water pollution on the environment and on the people who use the water.
“Our results demonstrate that small-scale studies focusing solely on direct effects are likely to underestimate the true environmental impacts of estrogens in municipal wastewaters and provide further evidence of the value of whole-ecosystem experiments for understanding indirect effects of EDCs and other aquatic stressors,” the study report stated.
Numerous other studies have linked water pollution from hormonal contraceptives, which currently pass right through sewage treatment plants, to everything from the feminization of male fish to rising human male fertility problems.
Writing in Forbes magazine in 2012, British economist Tim Worstall suggested that the government should tax contraception to pay for the costs of upgrading and operating sewage treatment facilities to remove the hormones.
Using the “standard logic that the polluter should pay,” Worstall said that just as “BP has to pay to clean up the waters of the Gulf after Macondo … women who take the contraceptive pill should pay £1,000 ($1,500) a year more in tax. It is women taking the contraceptive pill who are causing this pollution…This really is pollution and yes, we do have this general assumption that the polluter should pay for having polluted.”
Worstall posited that, “We cannot charge BP for killing fishies through pollution if we don’t also charge others who kill fishies through pollution, can we?”
“The pill pollutes; thus, those who use the pill should pay the costs of their pollution,” he concluded.
The abstract of the University of New Brunswick study by Dr. Karen Kidd titled “Direct and indirect responses of a freshwater food web to a potent synthetic oestrogen” is available here.