Contraceptives in the Rain

by Eleanor Frances

A British economist recently published an article in Forbes proposing that women on birth control should pay a higher tax than other people. Citing the pollution costs calculated by the European Union for household or residential water pollution, Tim Worstall proposed what economists call a Pigou Tax, or a tax intended to offset a negative social impact such as an oil spill resulting in water pollution. He explains that such a tax is the “inevitable outcome of the standard logic that the polluter should pay” (Worstall). Actually, that logic has been behind the clean-up fines, for instance, paid by British Petroleum for recent oil spills.

Others argue that pesticides, such as Atrazine, can cause endocrine disruption as well.  Hormones used in agriculture and found in animal wastes are an alternate source of endocrine disruptors. Other sources include chemicals used in manufacturing and cosmetic products. However, the specific tax proposed by Tim Worstall is based on a calculation for household sources of the estrogen contaminant (Worstall).

While still others point out there are young women with medical conditions and older women who experience severe symptoms as part of their menopause, these could still be prescribed.  The environmental build-up of estrogen would be beneficially reduced by a ban on oral contraceptive use. Even trace amounts of the particular estrogen coming from the pill is problematic, and  85% of the estrogen in birth control pills gets excreted in urine and goes to the waste treatment facility  (Alter). The detrimental environmental effect related to the oral contraceptive pill derives from the estrogen hormones used in the pill to fool the woman’s body into thinking it’s pregnant. As a result of the hormones, her body will “turn off” its fertility. Well, this same function has been repeatedly observed in field research by scientists studying fish and frog populations.

Asbestos, tobacco, and Thalidomide are examples of toxins that were initially thought to benefit humans but were later banned for their harmful effects. Estrogen from birth control pills enters municipal water supplies and cannot be filtered out by the existing water treatment systems.  Science has shown detrimental effects on animal (intersex fish—or gender changed fish) and human health (prostate cancer and infertility).

What will it take before people generally call for a ban on oral contraceptives?  The potential collapse of fish stocks in Europe is serious as it possibly affects food security for all human beings. Maybe people would act quickly to ban the oral contraceptive pill if there was some immediate after taste to the water, such as that detected by Captain Jack Harkness in the first episode of the Dr. Who spin-off, Torchwood. In that episode, he stands in the drizzling rain, head tilted back, commenting: “I can taste it. Estrogen.”  Even though it’s virtually impossible for estrogen to be in the rain, it is very astute of the main character to reflect on the relationship between oral contraceptives and the environment. Imagine if we all had that same acuity.

Alter, Lloyd. “Drugs Are in Our Water! Should I Switch to Bottled?” Tree Hugger. 11 March  2008

Davies, Russel. Torchwood.  Season 1. Episode 1 “Everything Changes.” NetFlix. 2006.

Margel, David, Neil E Fleshner. “Oral Contraceptive Use Is Associated with Prostate Cancer: An Ecological Study.”  British Medical Journal.  14 Nov. 2011

McKie, Robin. “£30bn Bill to Purify Water System After Toxic Impact of Contraceptive Pill.” The Observer.  2 June 2012.

Worstall, Tim. “Women on Contraceptive Pill Should Pay $1,500 a Year More Tax.” Forbes.  3 June 2012.

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