Estrogen pollution making ripples

By Luke Dery

Just when you thought that pollution couldn’t get any worse, it gets stranger.

Girls are experiencing puberty at unnatural ages, women are having trouble bearing children and research has shown an increase in the percentage of females among newborn children. Scientists are saying that these things are due to an unsafe amount of the hormone estrogen in our water.

Products like birth control are rapidly gaining popularity in our country. Hormones are put into these medications in order to control the reproductive system, and in this case the hormone is estrogen. Estrogen is also used, although less popularly, to help women in pregnancy, relieve menstrual pain and increase hormone production. Seeing as estrogen is so widely used and even considered necessary for the health of some people, it is difficult for doctors to stop people from using it.

With all its capabilities, how could estrogen possibly be harmful to humans? The answer lies in what happens after estrogen-based products are consumed. Estrogen does not get broken down by the human digestive system. It comes out of our bodies with waste and flows relatively chemically untouched into our water supply.

People often don’t see the danger in this. After all, we have water treatment plants for the very reason of cleaning out such pollutants. However, water treatment plants do not treat for chemicals such as estrogen. The devices needed to do so are not required by the government and are extremely expensive. In addition, the amounts of estrogen in the water are considered to be negligent according to government standards and this too pushes the topic away from the public eye.

Although the government chooses to ignore the small amounts of estrogen in the water, scientists are quite concerned. Just like how skin slowly burns in the sun, exposure to estrogen for long periods of time will eventually harm your body. Our bodies produce and use estrogen, but adding more estrogen affects the natural balance of our hormones. Scientists have conducted experiments that involve exposing estrogen to fish populations and observing what occurs. As they observed the generations, they discovered that the males of the species became increasingly feminized, which led to delayed sperm production. Eventually, this became unsustainable and the fish were unable to procreate effectively. This is a scary realization that we need to get to work on removing this pollutant.

But who is truly to blame for estrogen pollution? Deeper analysis will reveal that the responsibility lies with multiple parties. The people are creating the problem with their use of estrogen-based products, but the government isn’t doing its job to remove these pollutants. It is a joint effort, but there isn’t way to fairly force either side to do what needs to be done.

The government budget plans need to be edited to allow plants to do the necessary work. This is a matter of public health and safety and proper funds need to be supplied. However, the government is struggling with its finances and other national issues and most likely wants to focus on more immediate problems. Also, water treatment plants have to work the best they can to eliminate these problems. They can accomplish this by making the problems known to the government and provide statistical data to encourage government intervention. Workers may not want to put in extra effort for less pay, but in a cooperative cleanup effort everyone must sacrifice.

On the other hand, people too need to be aware of the dangers they create by disposing of various materials in water. First of all, we must look at the necessity of these estrogen-based products. If there is no way to avoid using them, we must find effective alternatives or safer replacements. We have to be careful with our own habits to preserve our health.

With no clear answer in sight, we have to look for the best option. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the people. Since the government is a large and complex organization, we can’t expect it to suddenly fund water treatment plants or initiate programs to make the water cleaner. However, there are things that we as citizens can do to make a difference. Instead of flushing old birth control pills down the toilet, we can dispose of them properly. Many cities have organized events in which medications can be dropped off and disposed of in an environmentally safe manner.

On a more personal level, before using estrogen-based products, people could decide if it is worth the risk of polluting the water. Aside from pollution, people can focus on water purification. Although water treatment plants won’t purify the water completely, there are products available to buy and use at home. These products probably won’t be perfectly effective, but the extra purification helps. So when the authorities fail, the responsibility falls upon the people to keep their world safe and clean. Hopefully, someday we can truly collaborate, people and government, to defeat pollution problems such as estrogen contamination.

Until then, we as individuals must do what we can to keep ourselves safe.

Luke Dery is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].