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An ecological blind spot

November 17th, 2010

by Cristina Alarcon

Contraceptives are polluting women’s bodies and the environment, but who cares?

There is a huge effort today to protect the physical environment from the unintended effects of human activity. We have international agreements and national policies to reduce global warming by curbing excess carbon, produced as human beings pursue their material wellbeing.

On a smaller scale, we each do our best to turn off the taps, turn down the lights, use public transport, cut down on the fumes, recycle, recycle, and definitely not flush any medicines down the sink – especially not the brain-altering or endocrine-disrupting kind. Yes, we are constantly seeking ways to reduce air and water pollution, and in Canada, the Environment Act even allows citizens to bring civil action when the government is not enforcing environmental laws.

But in spite of all our efforts, there are tell-tale signs that a particular type of pollutant, the endocrine disruptor, is wreaking havoc on our ecosystems. And as the world’s rivers are in a crisis of ominous proportions, we are witnessing the alarming effects wrought by estrogenic substances on aquatic life. Feminized male fish that lay eggs and/or have lost their reproductive abilities have been found near waste water effluent areas.

There are also growing concerns about damage to the human body from pollutants, although there appear to be no human data on long-term effects from this exposure. Not reassuringly, the World Health Organization reports that there are still many unknowns.

In an effort to curb pollution, Canada has recently declared bisphenol A a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act — a great victory for environmentalists, and a huge relief for Canadians, as exposed rodents have shown signs of neurological and behavioural developmental problems.

Used in the making of clear, hard plastics, as well as food can liners, BPA is known as the “gender bending chemical”. Even trace amounts found on some shopping receipts may contribute to impotence of male shoppers — while boosting Viagra sales — if they touch their mouths or handle food.

The endocrine disruptor has also been linked to low sex drive and DNA damage in sperm; it may disrupt female reproductive systems, and contribute to development of cancers and metabolic diseases. Its status is currently under review in Europe and the US.

But why are environmental crusaders hounding plastic manufacturers and the canned foods industry while ignoring the most obvious culprit: pharmaceuticals in our water supply? Not just what is dumped by manufacturers or consumers, but more importantly, what is flushed down the toilet after human consumption.

The fact remains that over the past 50 years countless millions of women have ingested synthetic hormones — great endocrine disruptors — to prevent conception, and excreted the waste product.

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  1. November 17th, 2010 at 13:20 | #1

    Excellent article, thanks Betsy!

  2. Mark
    November 18th, 2010 at 07:57 | #2

    I would be curious to see how they control for the hormones from pollutants versus the ones from women. And for the ones from women, differentiating between natural and those ingested. My first impression is this a lot about nothing. Granted, we do need to be more responsible in disposing of all meds but this sounds like an anti-contraceptive piece.

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