Responding to worries from environmental scientists that the widespread use of hormonal contraceptives is causing a new Silent Spring, the European Union is calling for a costly effort to keep the key chemical in “the Pill” from killing off fish populations:
Britain faces a £30bn bill to clean up rivers, streams and drinking water supplies contaminated by synthetic hormones from contraceptive pills. Drastic reductions in these chemicals, which have been linked to collapses in fish populations, are proposed in the latest European Union water framework directive.
The science is hotly contested by the pharmaceutical industry, which fears bad publicity and getting stuck with the immense costs of cleanup:
More than 2.5 million women take birth control pills in the UK. Their EE2 content is excreted and washed into sewage systems and rivers. Even at very low concentrations, this chemical has harmful effects on fish. Males suffer reduced sperm production, with severe effects on populations. In one recent trial, in a Canadian lake, researchers added EE2 until levels in the water reached five parts per trillion (ppt), a minute concentration. Yet fish populations suffered severe problems with one species, the fathead minnow, collapsing completely. [ . . . ]
But the plan, which would involve upgrading the sewage network and significantly increasing household water bills, is controversial. Water and pharmaceutical companies dispute the science involved and argue the costs are prohibitive. By contrast, many environmental researchers say the proposal is sound.
Of course, research can be exaggerated, and none of this effects the underlying question. Contraception is wrong whether achieved via fish-killing hormones from a global pharmaceutical conglomerate or handsewn lambskin from free-range, locally-raised sheep. Yet we should not be surprised if acts against nature, well, harm nature.