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An ecological blind spot

Contraceptives are polluting women's bodies and the environment, but who cares?
Cristina Alarcon | 16 November 2010
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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.

This is affirmed in a peer-reviewed paper by Alan D. Pickering of the Natural Environment Research Council, and John D Sumpter of Brunel University, who highlight that although some of the endocrine-disruptors are industrial chemicals, it seems clear that the most pervasive estrogens in the aquatic environment are steroids derived from human excretion. They readily admit that although, theoretically, the pill could be controlled at source, “the social implications of this would be totally unacceptable”. Meanwhile, whether the pharmaceutical industry could develop "an effective but environmentally less persistent alternative...remains an open question."

Oh really? What makes hormonal contraception sacrosanct among other pollutants? Is it that there is absolutely no better way to guarantee women’s “reproductive choice”? Or is there, behind that slogan, an attitude to the female body that is out of sync with ecological thinking and, if the truth be told, not concerned with real choices for women at all.

Think about it: if estrogenic contaminants aren’t good enough for rodents or fish, why would women consume them? After all, women themselves suffer ill effects of hormonal contraceptives which are gradually being revealed, even as blogosphere chat rooms are increasingly flooded with expressions of personal malaise.

How many women know that in 2005 the World Health Organisation classified the contraceptive pill as a Group I carcinogen because of proven links with breast and some other cancers? Do they know that sex hormones can compromise the immune system?

How about recent findings that show the Pill may skew the biological cues that help a woman choose a compatible mate? (Imagine getting off the Pill only to wake up one day and realize you are lying next to a man you loathe!) Again, German researchers have linked the Pill to female sexual dysfunction, and neurologists are concerned the progestin component may be affecting our ability to think. Alzheimer’s anyone?

Actually, this gambling with women’s wellbeing goes back to the beginnings of the pill in the 1950s when American scientists took advantage of poor Puerto Rican women, not informing them that they were being corralled into a medical experiment with potentially dangerous side effects. It has continued through the Depo Provera controversy to the recent Ortho Evra patch fiasco.

Yet, even as lawsuits over Evra are quietly settled in both the US and Canada -- the British Columbia government is suing to recover past and future health care costs for damages inflicted on women -- as NBC reports, the millions paid out to victims is peanuts compared to the billions on profit sales.

How come after 50 years of militant feminism and environmentalism that nobody cares about the ecology of women’s bodies and the integrity of their person? How much longer will women agree to be guinea pigs “for the sake of the planet” -- or for the sake of Big Pharma’s profits?

And what may turn the tide? The threat of impotence and sterility among the male population?

If the driving force of contraception really is choice for women -- and not just social control of fertility -- there is an alternative, just as there are alternatives to plastics and cans, oil and coal if we really want to find them. In fact, we don’t even have to look for a healthy method of family planning; it already exists.

Fertility awareness, or natural family planning, has been shown in scientific studies to be a highly effective method when couples are properly instructed and use the method consistently -- as is the case with hormonal and other methods.

It does require a change in lifestyle, but the biggest barrier to change now lies with healthcare professionals, most of whom just don’t know enough about it, as a recent study co-authored by Dr. Ellen Wiebe at the Dept of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia clearly shows. In fact, most physicians underestimate the effectiveness of NFP, and only a small proportion of them provide information on this healthier option.

In a world increasingly preoccupied with conserving nature and singing the virtues of naturalness, this is an anomaly, to say the least. To continue along the path of promoting risky and polluting contraceptives while ignoring a wholesome alternative would look very like an ideological or commercial commitment, and nothing to do with women’s reproductive health at all. Or care for the planet, for that matter.

Cristina Alarcon is a Vancouver pharmacist and writer. She holds a Masters in Bioethics.

This article is published by Cristina Alarcon and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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