Photo: Hilary Thomas (Flickr)
The introduction of birth control has empowered modern society with control over the choice to reproduce.
What Is Birth Control?
Birth control is composed of synthetic estrogen, an artificial version of a naturally occurring molecule that limits female fertility. Since much of the molecular machinery in nature works similarly, when this synthetic estrogen makes its way from humans to natural water systems it can have unintended impacts.
Studies have shown synthetic estrogen can produce fish with drastically reduced reproductive capability, and thereby cause the collapse of entire populations. Studies have also shown a link in decreasing human sperm count, and increasing breast and testicular cancers with higher levels of estrogen in drinking water.
Estrogen In Water
Birth control is only one of many estrogen mimicking chemicals entering the environment. Contaminants with similar effects are introduced from industry and agriculture. While wastewater treatment plants are great at sanitizing and neutralizing water, they are not designed to remove many common chemicals.
Some of the estrogen and other organic contaminants are degraded during the active sludge process, but the processes affecting removal of estrogen are complicated and incomplete. The degree of removal is influenced by how concentrated the estrogen is, the presence of antibiotics, nitrogen levels and even the types of bacteria present.
With careful monitoring and development of our water treatment plants, estrogen contamination in our water systems can be prevented.