Marley Carroll is a Clarkson University environmental policy and science major who will graduate in Spring 2016. This post was composed for Biological Systems & Global Environmental Change, taught by Dr. Tom Langen.
How would you feel if your favorite animal was slowly extirpated because it had become feminized?
If you are an angler who loves the sport of rainbow trout fishing, for example, take note: Fish populations and other aquatic species may be at risk of contamination by synthetic estrogen.
The human body cannot metabolize this drug fully. Trace amounts are excreted, become part of wastewater effluents and, eventually, enter surface waters. There is growing concern about the environmental impacts when such pharmaceuticals then enter the food chain.
Synthetic estrogen is harmful at low levels to fish and other aquatic species because of its strong ability to bind to estrogen receptors. Significant attention has been given to investigating estrogen in water because many amphibians and other aquatic species are at special risk to chronic exposures.
Between the years of 2006-2010, the Center for Disease Control surveyed women 15-44 years of age about their contraceptive use. Of the 61,755 women interviewed, over 17% use synthetic estrogen (the pill) as a contraceptive. The U.S. Censusestimated that of 84,210,000 women between ages 15-44 in 2010, approximately 14,315,700 women consumed and excreted synthetic estrogen daily. 17α-ethynylestradiol (EE2), the synthetic estrogen used in birth control pills, is routinely found in wastewater effluent and surface water.
Secondary wastewater treatment plants remove only 70% of estrogenic compounds. They do not have technology capable of removing trace estrogen levels and it is not economically feasible for most communities to retrofit. There is advanced treatment, such as reverse osmosis, which can remove up to 95% of estrogenic compounds from wastewater, but this process essentially demineralizes the water and strips its healthy properties.
Kidd et al. (2007) conducted a seven-year study at the Experimental Lakes Area in the northwestern region of Ontario, Canada. Their results showed fathead minnows (Pimephales promelas) chronically exposed to 5-6 ng/L of EE2 impacted males gonads and female oogenesis to the extent of almost extirpating the species within the study area.
Monitoring of synthetic estrogen in our waterways could have many positive implications for public health and ecosystems. But new technologies capable of removing EE2, such as advanced oxidation combined with UV and hydrogen peroxide treatment, are still in the early development stage and not economically feasible in most situations. Hansen and Anderson (2012) treated sewage water contaminated by estrogenic chemicals with ozone/UV/hydrogen peroxide and determined removal of synthetic estrogen requires less energy than removing estrogen-mimicking compounds.
While this type of wastewater treatment technology is still being developed, better sex and health education and services should be made available to women coming of age. There are many alternatives to the birth control pill. They should be at least considered before interfering with women’s natural hormone cycles or the with right of other species to exist.