Sewage has always been a scary business to consider. Made even creepier with the release of a new study finding human birth control to be drastically reducing fertility in fish.
Waste, by its very nature, makes for a grim topic. But is a relevant one, too. No matter where you are right this second, a pipe just below the soles of your shoes is hurrying away someone’s dreck. It is around us, below us, in front and behind us every day: literal human shit. Only once, ever, has it been romanticized—in Les Miserables, when Victor Hugo somehow made the sprawling sewers of Paris into a place of refuge and reflection, a monastery of sorts.
More recently, we have heard of microbiology sleuths working the sewers of Israel to find all sorts of fugitive viruses. There, they have found alarming strains of polio—not the tamer one that resides in the polio vaccine but rather the wild-type polio that spreads and cripples. The socio-sewage analysis led the experts to infer that their vaccination program was showing dangerous signs of incompleteness.
But now we have crept into something unrelated to either virus. According to a report from the U.S. Geological Survey, we might be putting tuna and sharks, snapper and whales onto the Pill. All those ingested, then excreted pills—well, Pills, actually—may be working their way from Big Pharm to the medicine cabinet to your stomach to your kidneys, bladder, and toilet bowl—thence to the Mighty Mississippi and a cheerful swarm of guppies.
The story is creepy, really, and a reminder that all that is flushed does not disappear.
After all, we have seen a corollary problem not from the Pill but from triclosan, a now mostly-avoided ingredient in soap and toothpaste. With the latter, evidence that the triclosan was causing “hormone disruption” and possible fertility issues has made it the new chemical ingredient to hate, complete with wishy-washy FDA non-denial denial: In typical government both-sides-of-the-mouth-speak, the FDA is standing up to sit down, letting you know that you should maybe not use it except if you have to, but it might be OK except if it’s not.
Indeed the current study examined not just a standard Pill-containing synthetic hormone, 17a-ethinylestradiol (or EE2), but also BPA (bisphenol A), a component of plastic. For both, hormone disruption was seen, including up to a 30 percent reduction in fertility among grandchildren of the exposed fish. “Hormone disruption” itself is an intentionally vague term used by scientists to describe the consequences of chemicals—medications or soap or the run-off from the upstream factory— that glom onto to some branch of the very intricate cascade of animal sex hormone (estrogens and androgens mostly) production.
With enough glomming, the natural assembly is disrupted and the hormone potency altered. Bad news for the food supply, maybe bad news for humans who live on the planet and care about their hormonal balance, and apparent contributor to a spine-tingler of a not-science-fiction-but-should-be problem: intersex fish.
Intersex fish appear to be equipped with both male and female parts, a sexually ambidextrous condition that likely reflects the end product of way too much hormone disruption.
Though in the gender-bending 21st century, packing parts of both genital product lines has a certain uber-modern appeal, this mezzo-state can lead to big problems with fertility and perhaps, the survival of the species.
Indeed nature has very clear reasons for silo-ing the males apart from the females: procreation. And doubly equipped fish do not seem to be capable of auto-fertilization, as are some plants, insects, and other animals (the intrepid should read up on self-pollination and parthenogenesis); rather, the concern is that they may fail to reproduce much at all.
So there we have it—a thoroughly modern problem of gender-switching animals likely getting their cue from pills, the Pill, and chemical-detritus of a thoroughly modern world. Which raises an additional question—what about all those other pills that we swallow, metabolize and urinate or defecate out into the subterranean land of Jean Valjean?
Half of America is on cholesterol-lowering agents it seems, and the other half is on antidepressants. Are we drinking remnants of others’ medications as well, thereby medicating ourselves—perhaps for the better—unwittingly and untraceably?
Inevitably the answer is “yes.” And so not only might medication-spiked drinking water become the next great frontier for the paranoid, but we may have identified yet another way that we are all linked. We are comfortable with sharing genes and noise and laws and even taxes—but sipping each others’ medicines? That’s one that could make even a sane person seek out the fine-print specifics of the Paleo diet.