No, the Pill ISN’T Destroying the Environment: Debunking 1Flesh, Episode 4

Photo courtesy of njj4.

Photo courtesy of njj4.

Welcome, readers, to Episode 4 of my series debunking the lies and inaccuracies being promoted by 1Flesh. This week’s episode is devoted to their mistaken belief that the hormones in oral contraceptives are destroying the environment and, thus, we should all ditch the Pill for NFP.

As always, paragraphs in all italics are taken directly from their site.

Enjoy! 

Released into the main water supply through the urine of women taking oral birth control, ethynylestradiol (EE2), the main component in oral contraceptives, has a profoundly negative impact on the mating behaviors of several species of amphibians and fish. The endocrine system regulates an organism’s hormones, so endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) affect fertility, development, and immunity.

Quick tip: it’s never a good idea to start out a post with such a big claim, particularly when said post is full of as many errors as this one. Just a thought.

 According to a study published by Frauke Hoffman of the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, EE2 has been attributed to lowering sexual arousal in male African-clawed frogs.

This was actually a fairly interesting read. Although, looking at the actual data, it seems like the only significant effects on mating rituals of African-clawed frogs were caused by introduction of EE2 levels of above 2 ng/L, and the level of EE2 in surfacewater in the US is 1.4 ng/L. But, again, an interesting read.

The synthetic estrogen found in lakes and rivers has caused reduced fertility and infertility in male fish

Did you guys SERIOUSLY just cite to a campus newspaper article that has absolutely NO citation to the actual study for this link. SERIOUSLY? I am THIS close to contacting all of your research, science, and statistics professors and telling them they need to step up their game. This is getting embarrassing.

Here’s a link to the actual study, and I’ll go ahead and point out that the researchers exposed the trout to 10, 100, and 1000 ng/L. The concentration of EE2 in US surface water? Again, it’s 1.4 n/l.

Scientists at the Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Washington State exposed a group of rainbow trout to EE2-contaminated water, and after two months found that the male fish were half as fertile as males that were exposed to clean water

::COUGH:: This is the same study as above ::COUGH::

Seriously, 1Flesh. Y’all are in college now. Learn to do some actual research. Original sources are ALWAYS best. And if you can’t find the original source, it’s probably best if you look for a different source to make your point.

The New York Times reported in 2009 that estrogen levels in the water of the Shenandoah and Potomac were responsible for intersex (that is, dual-gendered) fish.  Male fish were found carrying eggs in their testes.

Again, you don’t cite to the original source (it’s here, btw), but even a cursory reading of the article pulls up this gem:

Scientists have not targeted the source of estrogen, but many suspect it stems from certain pollutants and drugs in waterways.

Hmmm…don’t see birth control mentioned there anywhere. And given the EE2 makes up only a tiny percentage of the estrogens in water supplies in the US, I’d hazard a guess that this damage was caused by something other than urine from women on hormonal contraceptives.

A 2006 study reported that over eighty percent of male bass were carrying eggs in the Shenandoah and Monocacy River. And such massive environmental disruptions are not limited to ethinylestradiol pills, though they are the most commonly used.

Where to start with this one? First, here’s the link to the full study that you link to, 1Flesh. Second, you do realize that the study you’re linking to was about the Hudson River in New York, and not the Shenandoah and Monocacy Rivers in Virginia and West Virginia, right? And that the researchers in the study you linked to didn’t study EE2 at all? They were studying PCBs, mercury, and 17b-estradiol (E2 – the kind secreted naturally by men, women, and children, particularly by pregnant women).

Now I seriously AM thinking about contacting your professors.

I THINK, though I can’t be certain, that the study you were referencing is this one (the one you tried to cite earlier.

I also think it’s probably important to note that the USGS stated, concerning that research that:

Multiple environmental contaminants were found in the sampling devices, often with higher concentrations of wastewater chemicals (near the treatment plant outfalls).  Pesticides currently used in agriculture were detected at all locations. Hormones were not detected in the passive water samplers. However, laboratory tests (yeast screening assays) suggested that estrogenic endocrine-disrupting chemicals were present at all locations. These tests do not identify single compounds, rather an overall response.

Based on the results of these samples, we cannot identify a single chemical or sources that may be causing the intersex and vitellogenin induction. Multiple chemical stressors that are not solely associated with agriculture or wastewater treatment plant effluent may be responsible.

Oopsies. Doesn’t look like you can blame that on oral contraceptives, either. Hmmm…

And such massive environmental disruptions are not limited to ethinylestradiol pills, though they are the most commonly used.

Um, no. That’s simply not true. Here’s a nifty chart that show the breakdown of different hormones found in US drinking water. NB: Even when adjusted for the fact that EE2 has a higher potency that other forms of estrogen, it’s STILL not the highest concentration or potency E2 is, BY FAR. And that’s the type of estrogen that everyone on this planet (particularly pregnant women) naturally excrete.

 In 2010, scientists treated an entire lake with low doses of Nothindrone, and it caused the Flathead Minnow to all but disappear through a lack of reproduction. It “feminizes immature fish and shuts off reproduction in mature fish.”

Okay, so now we’re moving onto progestins? First, let’s point out that you’ve spelled the progestin incorrectly – it’s actually norethindrone. Next let’s provide a link to thefull text of this doctoral dissertation that this is citing. Finally, let’s point out that ONCE AGAIN, you’re linking to the WRONG study!

This dissertation examined the effects of norethindrone on fathead minnow and Japanese medaka in a CONTROLLED environment. The PhD student was not “dosing” an entire lake.

Again, doing your research for you, I THINK you were looking for this study.

At least this time, the researchers were actually studying EE2. Unfortunately, however, they were dosing the lake with levels of EE2 of 5-6 ng per liter. What is the typical level of EE2 is US source water you might ask? Why, again, it’s 1.4 ng/liter. So….I think what 1Flesh is trying to say is that if we were to pollute source water with ~4 times as much EE2 as is currently there – through, well, I don’t know, perhaps through not treating the substances secreted in wastewater treatment plants at all? – we could start to see an environmental problem, e.g., a reduction in the flathead minnow population.

Thanks, 1Flesh, for the tip. We’ll be sure to make sure we keep the levels of EE2 in surface water as low as we possibly can. Actually, a group of researchers (from the study I cited just a moment ago) has some suggestions for lowering the level of ALL estrogens in source and drinking water even further.

Yay science!

And the effects are not merely sexual. Mall bass in the Virginia/Maryland area, which typically produce two proteins that protect them against bacteria, were only producing one, suggesting that artificial estrogens in the water makes them more susceptible to disease.

Sigh. You know, I hate to whine, but it’s REALLY getting tiring correcting all of your shoddy research, 1Flesh. To begin, here’s the link to the actual article to people can read for themselves what it’s about.

And now, let me point, once again, that these researchers were studying 17b-estradiol – E2, the kind secreted naturally by men, women, and children, particularly by pregnant women – which they INJECTED into fish. Let me repeat that. They were studying the type of estrogen that humans naturally produce and secrete (NOT the synthetic kind in hormonal contraception), that they INJECTED into the fish.

Frauke Hoffmann of the Department of Ecophysiology and Aquaculture in Berlin, and Werner Kloas of the Department of Endocrinology in Berlin concluded from a study of African-clawed frogs that continued amphibian exposure to EE2 has the potential to “contribute to the global problem of amphibian decline.”

::shakes head:: Do you guys REALLY think your readers are so stupid that they won’t notice that this is the same article that you cited at the very beginning of this poor attempt at research? This probably should have mentioned at the top when you talked about his work the first time. Just sayin’. And, again, the levels they were studying were MUCH higher than the levels found in source water.

Dr. David Norris, physiologist 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.

Point 1: You’re citing to a news article. To an archived copy of the Boulder weekly. Interesting…

Point 2: Even if I did trust this guy, there’s nothing in that article (read: article, not study) that indicates what these numerous reports might be.

Point 3: Further, this meta-analysis indicates thatNorris’ concerns about synthetic estrogens impacting humans is, well, bunk. The researchers in that study found, among lots of other interesting things – you really should read it – that:

EE2 has the lowest predicted environmental concentration in U.S. drinking water compared to natural estrogens in the human diet (such as from intake of dairy or soy), and is generally lower than naturally produced and prescription endogenous estrogens. It is still lower than E2 after considering relative potency.

Synthetic estrogen from birth control is not the only source of EDCs contaminating the water; plastics and pesticides are also a major source. 

DING DING DING!  It’s not even the MAJOR source. It’s actually a minor source.

As one author very succinctly put it:

Blaming birth control for the presence and effects of synthetic estrogens in water is a bit like blaming your high electric bill on the toaster, rather than the big-screen TV, 10-year-old energy-sucking washer and dryer, or poorly insulated heating system. It is unfair, and is being used as a ploy to create conflict between environmental and reproductive health advocates. It is also a distraction — in this case, it diverts attention from the egregious and virtually unchecked use of synthetic estrogens by chemical companies and factory farms.

Currently, there are no regulations on the amount of synthetic estrogen that can be released into sewage systems.

No, there aren’t. And I’d love to see some regulations on precisely the amount of chemicals manufacturing companies can dump into water treatment plants. My father has worked in water and wastewater treatment for 30+ years, and still works to protect water sources through research and environmental lobbying. Oddly enough, contamination from birth control pills has not ONCE ever crossed his mind as a real concern. Contamination from farmlands and from manufacturing, on the other hand, is ALWAYS on his mind.

Further, even if we DID have reason to be concerned about the amount of EE2 being sent from private homes into wastewater treatment plants, particularly compared to E1 and E2, the natural estrogens (and we don’t – the levels of both E1 and E2 in sewageinfluents and effluents in less than the levels of E2):

Activated sludge and other effective methods of sewage treatment are sufficient in removing most estrogenic compounds, as shown by comparison of sewage influents and effluents (26). The efficacy of estrogen removal during sewage treatment depends on the specific process and conditions (29), with several wastewater treatment plants able to remove EE2 at 80-98% efficiency (25-27). Activated sludge has repeatedly been shown to remove estrogenic compounds (26, 28, 37, 43) consistently removing over 85% of EE2 and E2 (60). EE2 was also reported to be degraded completely by nitrifying activated sludge in six days, converting EE2 into hydrophilic compounds (61). Moreover, studies show that treatment of water with chlorine removes between 80-95% of EE2, and treatment with ozone removes 95-99% of EE2 (62-64). (See id.)

Again, YAY FOR SCIENCE!

An “eco-friendly” birth control movement has begun to surge, which pushes more “natural” forms of birth control like biodegradable condoms, and generally discourages use of the Pill. We here at 1Flesh invite anyone using hormonal contraception to help save the Earth and ditch it for a more effective, side-effect-free, natural method of birth control.

You know, I’m all for eco-friendliness. My very first move as an eco-activist was being banned from a McDonalds when I was 7 years old for leading a group of schoolchildren in a rousing round of “Food, Folks, and Foam” (for those at 1Flesh – I think that was way before your time, but McDonald’s used to have a jingle that went, “Food, folks, and fun, you know the one McDonald’s, for food, folks, and fun”) to protest their use of foam packaging. I don’t buy products tested on animals and I actively search out health and beauty products that are made from environmentally-friendly products, and packaged in environmentally friendly ways; I recycle WAY more than my significant other is comfortable with; I always take my own bags to stores to buy items; I purchase organic / free range / cage free whenever I possibly can; and I’ve recently started conversations with my complex’s managerial office about starting composting. So, yeah, I get being environmentally conscious.

The concept of biodegradable condoms is an interesting one, particularly since the major brand is also vegan, but given that the inner packaging still isn’t biodegradable, and it’s not advisable to compost things like condoms as human scent with draw animals, I’m not sure exactly how much good they will do, as even biodegradable items often WON’T biodegrade once placed in a landfill. All that being said, I applaud the maker’s efforts, and wish them luck on making their product even more environmentally friendly.

But given the current evidence, I see absolutely NO reason to cease the use of hormonal contraception to “save mother Earth.”

If you choose to use natural family planning because you feel it’s right for you, get on with your bad self. But please quit lying about other forms of contraception in order to scare people into using your preferred form of birth control.

Till next time,

– H

© Heather Parker and Antigone Awakens, 2012-2013.

2 thoughts on “No, the Pill ISN’T Destroying the Environment: Debunking 1Flesh, Episode 4

  1. Andrew O'Brien

    Can't say I'm surprised to see this. I first heard about the possible relationship between BC and the environment, Oh, 7-8 years ago and I remember thinking it was pretty interesting, but that it would probably get debunked. I just have a nitpicky comment followed by a non-nitpicky comment (the post is VERY long and I only had time to skim it… which probably means I should just bite my tongue (fingers?))

    “but even a cursory reading of the article pulls up this gem:
    'Scientists have not targeted the source of estrogen, but many suspect it stems from certain pollutants and drugs in waterways.'
    Hmmm…don’t see birth control mentioned there anywhere.”

    Isn't Birth Control be considered a drug? If not birth control, which types of drugs are they talking about?

    But I think that the Birth control can impact the environment in a less obvious way and in making this comment I hope to inspire a future post. The issues you have gone after are, for me, very minor in this debate we're having. The environmental impact, breast cancer link, and others are interesting (and I think it needs to be looked at closer) but my opinion on contraception hardly hinges on these. I think the best arguments are about how contraception changes the dynamics between men and women and the dynamics of marriage. Thus, if you REALLY want to try and sway me you should go after these issues, and one issue in particular would be the divorce rate.

    (I know I'm just one person, here and I don't want to pretend like I'm so important that you're writing just for me… but then again, I'm reading your stuff).

    It seems obvious to me that Birth control is contributing to a rise in the divorce rate, and if that is true, the ecological footprint of birth control is likely much larger. Consider this: when people live with other people, their ecological footprint is less than it is if they live alone. For example, if two people are living together and they are reading they can share the same light bulb. If they are separated and living alone, and are reading they are now using two lightbulbs. They used twice as much electricity as they would if they were living together.

    Considering all the resources used to cook meals, heat homes in the winter, cool homes in the summer, and light homes it seems like the impact of divorce on the environment could be quite high. Now, not everyone who gets divorced goes off and lives alone. Sometimes they just move right in with the person they were cheating with. So I'm not claiming any scientific certainty. I'm just saying that this COULD be worth considering, and I'm curious to know your thoughts.

    And one more thing, Heather… I think 1flesh has been pretty cool with you and, as you've said on their facebook page, they are showing maturity in their willingness to change their site in order to make it accurate. So I think that it might be helpful for you to drop the tone you're using throughout your posts that make it seem like they are nothing more than a bunch of ideologues who care nothing about truth.

    I'm happy you're here to interact with us.

    Best!

    Reply
  2. Heather

    Andrew, the thing is, I'm not trying to “sway” anyone here. I'm not trying to tell them they should use a certain form of contraception, or not. All I'm doing is correcting the misinformation that 1Flesh is putting out there. Each of these posts does only deal with a small facet of that misinformation, but imagine how long the post would be if I tried to correct it all at once? 😉

    In re: the divorce rate, what people often fail to consider is that divorce isn't always a bad thing. Before divorce was an option, many women were stuck (like legally stuck) in abusive relationships. Even if there's not abuse, sometimes marriages just don't work out. And I don't think you can claim that that has anything to do with contraception. This is the old “ice cream causes crime!” fallacious argument. No, ice cream doesn't cause crime. But the two ARE correlated. The underlying causal factor is summer (and the attendant heat-driven anger, free time, etc). Even if you can show that there's a correlation between the increase in contraceptive usage and divorce (and I don't know that I've seen any studies showing that – I'd love to look them over if you've seen them), you can't prove causation.

    Unless you can prove that birth control actually is CAUSING divorce, then the rest of your argument really isn't worth considering, Unless you're thinking about making everyone get married in order to protect the environment, and I'm sure that's not what you're suggesting (or at least I really, REALLY hope it's not).

    In re: the “being cool” with 1Flesh stuff – I think we're both “cool” with each other on FB. But (and I've emailed with Marc) both of our blogs are rather adept at sarcasm, and I don't think you'll see either of us doing away with that anytime soon.

    Happy we're able to have civil conversations, as well.

    Best,

    – H

    Reply

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