The Pill Turns 50: Its Surprising Effects on Population, and the Risks It Poses to Our Water Supply
A recent article in Time Magazine highlights what the pill has meant for women and society. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the first pill for women. Shortly thereafter, nearly 1 million women started taking the pill. Today, over 80 percent of women will take the pill at some time during their reproductive years.
That's not to say that the introduction of the pill wasn't met with controversy. Even today, many religions believe that the purpose of sex, even within marriage, is reproduction. Outside of these social controversies, however, the pill, like all pharmaceuticals, has an effect on the planet. So, what effect has the pill had on the once exploding U.S. population? And, with so many women today taking the pill, how can we mitigate the adverse ecological effects that this powerful pharmaceutical has on our water supply?
A Declining Birth Rate?
The overall decline in the fertility rate over the past fifty years may be attributed, in part, to the spread of industrialization and a correlated rise in income in societies that are becoming highly urbanized and more educated so that there is less reliance upon the family to support production, as is the case in agrarian societies. Nevertheless, the increase in family planning since the introduction of the pill has undoubtedly played a part in lessening the birth rate in nations where methods of birth control are readily available.
According to a recent article in the Huffington Post, access to contraception has led to a decline in unplanned births, shotgun marriages, and adoptions and delayed family formation in some cultures until the late twenties and early thirties. With more women than ever taking the pill, the birth rate is falling. In fact, the number of children per household in this nation has gone from 3.6 to 2 children over the last fifty years. And the trend has increased in the last several decades. According to a CDC report, the birth rate fell [pdf] to 13.9 per 1,000 persons in 2002, down from 14.1 per 1,000 in 2001 and down a full 17 percent from the recent peak in 1990 (16.7 per 1,000).
Overpopulation and the Planet
As we all know, fewer offspring means fewer people drawing on the planet's finite resources. Recent studies have forecast what exploding populations will eventually mean for the planet. Environmentalists have long been concerned about the resources threatened by rapidly growing human populations, which can exacerbate phenomenon such as deforestation, desertification, air pollution, and global warming. But the most detrimental impact of overpopulation, according to Lawrence Smith, president of the Population Institute, may be the lack of fresh, clean water available to already overpopulated areas.
The Pill Seeping Into the Water Supply?
Although the pill has empowered parents to control family size, consumption of the powerful pharmaceutical may be having unintended effects on our environment. According to research at Brunel University and the University of Exeter, female sex hormones and chemicals that mimic those hormones, which are present in the pill, can lead to the 'feminization' of male fish. Feminization hinders reproduction by reducing the species' ability to breed. In some cases, feminization has lead to an actual change in sex amongst the male population.
According to the New York Times, an EPA survey of 139 streams around the country revealed that 80 percent of samples contained residues of drugs like hormones, painkillers, blood pressure medicines, or antibiotics. The problem of seepage is especially prevalent in the case of the pill because many of the hormones contained in the pill remain in your body for an extended period. As a result, these hormones can be excreted in urination so that they find their way into the water supply. Moreover, the pill is one of the most popular pharmaceuticals on the market and many people dispose of unused prescriptions by flushing them down the toilet. Hospitals also dispose of excess medications in this manner. Once these medications enter the water supply we're in real trouble because most wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to filter out pharmaceuticals.
What Can You Do To Protect Our Water Supply?
Although you can't help what comes out of your body, you can help by properly disposing of unused medications. In response to this growing issue, some states are setting up "pharmaceutical take-back locations" in drugstores or police stations. Others are adding pharmaceuticals to the list of hazardous household waste, like leftover paint or insecticides, which are periodically collected for safe disposal, often by incineration, according to the New York Times.
And what about our drinking water? Don't think that switching to bottled water will save you from hormones. Bottled water is often treated less stringently than tap water. Of the many different kinds of in-home water filtration systems available today, only those employing reverse osmosis have been shown to filter out some drugs.