The Ecologist

Packet of Pills on calendar
More articles about
Related Articles

What is the Pill doing to our bodies and planet?

Yanar Alkayat

2nd February, 2010

It was the drug that fuelled the sexual liberation of the 1960s, but what price are we paying for our love of the contraceptive Pill?

Birth control is always a hot topic. The Government’s latest campaign – ‘Contraception: Worth Talking About’ - encourages 18-24 year old women to choose hormonal contraception as the best way of avoiding unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

But the thickening soup of oestrogens in our water should mean that this advice is not doled out without caution.

Transgender fish

For over 15 years, researchers in UK and North America have been watching the feminisation of male fish. After leaving the human body, oestrogen hormones - natural and synthetic - as well as oestrogen-like chemicals and hormone disruptors in the environment - also referred to as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) - are discharged into rivers through sewage effluent and cause disruption to the reproductive behaviours of fish.

Scientists observing the effects of oestrogen in wildlife have now begun to fear the worst: that those effects may also appear in humans.

Of course, fish are not humans. But the similarities between the hormone systems, especially the sex hormones, of fish, birds, mammals and humans is why scientists argue that our bodies might behave similarly if exposed to comparable concentrations of hormones.
'We just don’t know what can happen in the long run,' says Charles Tyler, Professor of Ecotoxicology at the University of Exeter.

Persistent and traceable

Our hormones are the chemical messengers released by glands to regulate almost every cell, and function in the body - from metabolism, digestion and reproduction to moods, emotions and behaviour. This endocrine system is a finely tuned network that guides development in a similar way in both animals and humans.

Among the myriad compounds in fresh water, ethinylestrodial - the main component of the contraceptive pill - is traceable and persistent even at very low concentrations. This is because bacteria chew off the excreted hormone residues, which brings the compound back to life.
'In fact, almost as soon as the hormone hits the water in your toilet it can become active again,' says Tyler.

The two big studies that Tyler and colleagues have undertaken with the UK Environment Agency involved sampling thousands of fish from 42 sites around the country. They established a definitive link between exposure to these chemicals [oestrogens] and the effects on the fish. 'Ethinylestrodial is present in relatively low concentrations but it is extremely potent. I have little reservation that it is a player in feminising our fish,' says Tyler.

Losing males

The latest research by Tyler and his team with colleagues at Brunel University (to be published later this year) goes a step further. It shows this sexual disruption can reduce capability of fish to breed. Removing males from the breeding population reduces genetic variation, lessens the ability of a population to adapt to changes in the environment, and may eventually cause its collapse.

Since the early 1990s, scientists have been warning us of damage to aquatic life. John Sumpter and Susie Jobling, Professors at Brunel University, made the early observations that male fish are producing female egg proteins and developing immature eggs in response to waterborne oestrogen residues. Their work was followed by Professor Karen Kidd at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, who discovered similar contaminants in Canadian rivers.

The additive effect

For many years, the phenomenon of falling male sperm count and rising incidences of testicular disease has been the focus of scrutiny for both Danish-based endocrinologist Niels Skakkebaek and Richard Sharpe from the Medical Research Council in Edinburgh. In the 1990s, they found synthetic oestrogens commonly used in livestock farming and numerous chemicals used in everyday products with oestrogenic properties.

Bisphenol A (used in some plastic drinks bottles and the inner coatings of drink and food cans), phthalates (used in food wrapping and other plastics) and nonylphenols (a group of surfactants found in detergents) are just a few of the chemicals that mimic the effects of oestrogen. They received a lot of media attention during the 1990s - Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers was a bestseller, highlighting the true nature of these chemicals on wildlife and humans. But scientists are still uncertain whether they are to blame for reproductive disorders in the breast, prostate, ovary and uterus.

No single culprit

It is widely believed that around 100,000 chemicals or more are discharged into the environment each year and we are yet to screen them all for oestrogenic properties, so the culprits could still be out there. Sharpe admits, 'it’s unlikely to be a single oestrogen compound that causes testicular disorders, but they could play a role as part of complex mixture effects'.

Sharpe also points to persistent contaminants such as dioxins - a group of compounds that are by-products of pesticide production, waste incineration and the paper manufacturing industry. They are also fat-soluble and can be ingested through meat and dairy products. It is the unknown cumulative effect when these chemicals combine that raises alarm bells, not the effects of any single one of them. Adding further to the complexity of the problem, lifestyle factors including changing diets and increased obesity are also likely to contribute to an increase in reproductive disorders.

Saving our waters

The Environment Agency for England & Wales is fully aware that steroid oestrogens and other EDCs are entering rivers, and the water industry has invested heavily in cleaning up domestic wastewater. In addition, a national ‘Endocrine Disruption Demonstration Programme’ (undertaken by the water industry and the Environment Agency) has been assessing how effective sewage treatment processes are in removing steroid oestrogens. Sewage works vary in size and level of treatment but low concentrations of steroid oestrogens are present in all sewage effluents.

In terms of drinking water, the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) for England and Wales is keen to highlight that whilst EDCs may lead to abnormal sexual development in aquatic life there is no current evidence of human risk through drinking water. According to a spokesperson, the environmental concerns are quite separate from, and should not be related to, our drinking water supplies. The DWI continues to monitor the ongoing research in this field.

Unnatural body

Alongside the ecological downsides to hormone-overload, what about the effect on women’s health? Should we ignore the subtle but potentially substantial changes to hormones, cycles, emotion and behaviour?

Infertility experts Jane Bennett and Alexandra Pope say no. They brought the side-effects of hormonal contraception - from mood swings, headaches and depression to more serious risks such as thrombosis and breast cancer - to the attention of women last year with their book, The Pill: Are you sure it’s for you?. They argue that fundamentally altering the endocrine system’s delicate orchestration is detrimental for all sorts of reasons.

'The Pill induces a permanent state of infertility, and its impact isn’t just limited to ovaries, uterus and cervix but alters at least 150 bodily functions and affects all of the organs,' say Pope and Bennett.

The synthetic oestrogen and progesterone dose in the Combined Oral Contraceptive (COC) Pill is approximately four times greater than the body’s normal levels (at the peak of a normal cycle)  and flattens the natural ebb and flow of hormones. This includes the rise in oestrogen around ovulation that makes a woman feel sexy. Not surprisingly, a lack of sex drive among Pill-users is a common complaint.

Side effects

Once on the Pill, it’s not always plain sailing. The liver has to work hard to break down the extra compounds, the byproducts of which have been suggested as the reason behind unwanted effects such as depression, nausea and moodiness. Women at risk of blood clots, smokers over the age of 35 and those at risk of breast or other cancers are advised to avoid it and a large study published in Neurology in 2006 concluded that headaches, particularly migraines, are more likely among women taking oral contraception containing oestrogen (the mini-Pill and IUD coil are progesterone-only).

Too much oestrogen is potentially carcinogenic, and the fact the COC Pill has been classified as 'carcinogenic to humans' by the International Agency for Research of Cancer is rarely discussed by the medical profession (although studies have also shown that the COC Pill can protect against certain other types of cancer, notably ovarian cancer).

For most of the four million women in the UK who take oral contraception, the benefits of birth control outweigh the potential health risks; for others it’s a form of internal (and external) pollution and they will seek non-hormonal alternatives. In any case, women, especially teenagers, should be fully informed of all the risks.

EU regulations are now in place to ensure companies screen their chemicals for oestrogenic properties before discharging them into rivers – a move Tyler says is long overdue.

'We need to be savvier and more informed about how abnormalities in wildlife and humans relate to the plethora of chemicals in our environment,' he says.

Yanar Alkayat is a freelance journalist

Add to StumbleUpon
Mobile phones and health: what do we know?
In a matter of months, an Irish mobile network will launch 'Firefly' - the mobile phone for kids. With even official Government advice against such a move, Yanar Alkayat takes a timely look at what we know for certain about mobile phones and health
Contractors using dangerous pesticides in UK schools
Survey finds that school children are being exposed to harmful pesticides, but schools claim safer alternatives would be 'uneconomic'
Ecologist guide to detox
It's easy to dismiss 'detox' as a fad, as some product claims are exaggerated. But detoxing, as a practice, has been around for centuries
Cancer drug: the other use for mistletoe
Mistletoe is not just for kissing under. In some European countries the plant is a respected and widely used treatment for cancer. Will it catch on in the UK?
Pig MRSA widespread in Europe
Calls for national testing in UK pig herd after survey finds superbug to be prevalent throughout Europe


Previous Articles...

Users Comments

nike free knit 4.0 & cheap Nike free run
Posted By ucioqktjl 1 September 27, 2015 12:06:40 AM

deb encased by just mad people who own dogs.Vietnam swap package sets off any sprinting fight at footwear tariffs Mary LUC, Vietnam That's where most of Nike's Deep Fusion runners happen to be launched. Each time a list of these are at the end of typically the putting your unit together range along at the large Taiwanese owned and operated manufacturing facility below, the expense of construction is mostly about $20 to help $25. During department shops in San antonio along with in other places around the United states of america, all the retail price stages out of $59.99 so that you can $107. imports for fit sneakers. Vietnam desires to eliminate 9 per cent to 15 per-cent cost for a cost-free marketing tool commerce talks while using the Nation in addition to being unfaithful alternative Pacific cycles nation's. Commerce Rep Ralph Kirk prospects the ones discussions for President Barack Obama, and he became Vietnam's opinion around the data plans while he went along to Hanoi with July. companies which are trading blows along with waving flags across whether or not it nonetheless is practical intended for Us residents to make jogging sneakers. Both equally providers have more of their footwear built in Vietnam compared with any place else. Though Boston founded Nike Trainers Inc. stands out as the survive firm remaining generating a number it's nike free run white mass market running sneakers in the usa. Any privately operated agency obtained $2.04 million in income during the past year together with hires 2,Three hundred and fifty people for your five crops around Boston not to mention Maine. "Vietnam will be the best increasing company involving boot on the globe, second simply to Tiongkok in one payemnt output,In explained New Balance spokesperson Matt LeBretton. "The way we see it, Vietnam has already been receiving inside footwear. Lowering the charges could be for example providing a New york yankees another outfielder. They do not need it.In . Nike nike free powerlines 2 Corporation., free run Nike having gross annual profit associated with $24.A billion, is a most important footwear designer on this planet. The majority of of the people shoes are produced in foreign countries to the Beaverton, Ore. based mostly provider. Enterprise representatives tell you slicing your cost at Vietnamese developed trainers allows Nike to cover much higher raw materials prices plus shell out a lot more to maintain competitiveness. Hearing and seeing the two of you Kirk, the first kind mayor connected with The cowboys, attended an innovative Harmony place throughout Maine around Summer. She has

Classic Nike Sneakers & Nike Sportschuhe Sale!!
Posted By Thomasrox 1 October 15, 2015 07:11:22 AM

If you wish to go out and spend $500 with a taxi driver and another $1000 or higher on irons to make you play better, be happy. You may be that particular within a million that changes facts. I recognize we'll all buy nice gear every now and then but we're not able to purchase it having a thought that this will seriously lower our scores.. Pair it Nike Free Damen Schwarz using a big Air Max Nike set of gold hoops, a sizable brimmed hat, and several black wedges and also you Nike Air Damen are the hottest thing by the pool. Is an additional good website in the fun giraffe style print. Oh, of course, if you need to hide your booty choose the black sarong I discussed above.. Pueden comer semillas de cha las mujeres embarazadas? Hay buenas noticias para las preocupadas futuras madres: Puedes agregar las semillas de cha a la lista de alimentos "seguros" durante el embarazo. La cha es una semilla verstil que contiene muchos nutrientes claves importantes para un embarazo saludable. De hecho, slo 2 cucharadas de stas proporcionan casi todas las caloras diarias adicionales y los nutrientes necesarios durante las .. Nike Free 5.0 Nike Free 5.0 Herren Schwarz Gunstig Nike Air Force 1 High
Post a Comment
Security Code* Get another image


Using this website means you agree to us using simple cookies.

More information here...