Pill chemicals in waste water cause endemic feminization of male fish
On July 31, Smithonian.com published an article condemning other media sources for spreading “bad science” across the internet. These media sources claimed that women’s oral contraceptives are the cause of an endemic feminization of male fish around the world. According to the Smithsonian, we don’t know that the Pill is responsible. They referred to a study that looked at sources of chemicals in water ways and concluded: “So theoretically, any of those chemicals could be having a far greater impact than EE2,” which is the powerful chemical contained in a number of hormonal contraceptives. Is that the case?
That’s not the opinion of Dr. Charles Tyler, a reproductive physiologist and eco-toxicologist and Deputy Head of Biosciences at the renowned University of Exeter, England. For the past 20 years, Tyler has devoted his research to studying the effects of chemicals that impact the hormonal systems of wildlife, mainly fish. I interviewed him in July and corresponded with him more recently about the Smithsonian article.
“There are lots of chemicals that are estrogenic, but nothing as exquisitely potent as EE2,” he told me. “If you look at the evidence objectively then it is pretty much overwhelming that this is a key player in the feminization of fish in English rivers—and likely more widely.
“My honest view here is that even though I was interview by the Smithsonian, the writer of this article did not pay that much attention and had already formulated what she wanted to write and the angle of the story,” he added.
We understand that it’s not fair to make women on the pill feel responsible for such a dramatic ecologic change, and that’s not our goal. The Smithonian.org however, seems to be covering up for the pharmaceutical industry and ends up masking a major problem. It looks like they’re trying to change the narrative and make it about many other causes when in reality, hormonal contraceptives are the main culprit. The European Commission recognized that fact as they proposed to regulate EE2 in 2012[i]. When one considers how common hormonal contraceptives are in Europe, it is difficult to imagine that they would have taken that stand lightly.
I asked James Murphy, a recognized national expert in water law and policy, and he agreed: “Precisely no one in the water supply or water quality sectors of my business would disagree with that statement. The common knowledge is that pharmaceuticals are a problem for the treatment of wastewater as current treatment protocols do not include categorical limits for pharmaceuticals. There is universal agreement that we don’t have EPA limits for pharma because, among the many that are filtering through our municipal wastewater treatment plants, the largest component is by far estrogen from feminine birth control. Anti-depressants, etc., are out there and environmental activists would like to address this problem; however, the birth control pill is, quite simply, sacred and off limits.”
Here is my July interview with Dr. Tyler:
Me: In past 10-15 years, you and other scientists have started raising concerns about the presence of endocrine disruptors in fresh waters and its impact on fish populations. Studies have been conducted in various parts of the world with a limited number of different species. Can you help us understand the scale of this problem today?
Dr. Charles Tyler: If we look at feminization of fish, it is widespread in the UK rivers, as up to 25% of male fish are affected. Feminization has been shown to occur in wildlife on every continent. While fish are perhaps amongst the most affected, it also occurs among many other species: amphibians, birds, reptiles, and even mammals like otters, seals, and whales.
Me: Can you please explain to us in layman terms and from start to finish, the key mechanisms of how EE2 ends up in fresh water and affects the biology of fish populations?
Dr. Charles Tyler: Feminization of males refer to when males produce a yolk protein normally produced only by females, and/or an effect on the developing gonad, which may be the formation of a feminized reproductive duct and /or the presence of developing eggs (oocytes) in the male testes.
The fish suck a lot of the chemicals from the water and when we test what is in their body tissues, especially in the liver, we find a chemical blueprint of what we throw away down the toilets: natural steroids, contraceptive chemicals and in particular Estradiol Estrogen (EE), equine estrogen used for hormone therapy, and a series of industrial chemicals, including pesticides. There are 40,000 chemicals ….1,000 have endocrine ….200 have estrogen activity.
Me: Why is the EE2 from the pill a major culprit? Are other chemicals equally responsible?
Dr. Charles Tyler: EE is especially critical because it is designed to be more potent than natural steroids, harder to degrade. It is very potent at low dosage. In addition, the receptor system of fish is very similar to that of vertebrates.
Me: Do you think that there is a potential for similar disruption among mammals, and even humans?
Dr. Charles Tyler: EE2 would be effective in males if they were exposed. Drinking water is less likely to contain EE2, but has other chemicals, especially plasticizers. However, there is also a possibility of maternal transfer. We know that maternal transfer is a key root of exposure and that during development the fetus is very vulnerable so there is a greater chance of impact. However, this area is still under-researched.
In other words, while there is currently no affordable method to clean all waste waters that go into our rivers, our drinking water is processed through filtration systems that remove toxins. The risk that Dr. Tyler is referring to is when women get pregnant when they’re on the pill, which can expose their fetus to small but potent amounts of EE (we reviewed research about this topic here).
[i] Ethinyl Oestradiol in the Aquatic Environment Late Lessons from Early Warnings: Science, Precaution, Innovation 279 Emerging Lessons from Ecosystems | Ethinyl Oestradiol in the Aquatic Environment. Susan Jobling, Richard Owen 2013: “In 2012, nearly 75 years after its synthesis, the European Commission proposed to regulate EE2 as a EU-wide ‘priority substance’ under the Water Framework Directive (the primary legislation for protecting and conserving European water bodies).”