Your Birth Control Pills Are Keeping Fish From Having Babies Too

The U.S. Geological Survey found that the effect of the hormone in oral contraceptives on aquatic life is seriously toxic.

Rainbow trout may die off because of infertility. (Photo: West/Getty Images)

Mar 31, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The fish swimming in the streams, rivers, and lakes around your town are probably on Prozac. Now new research from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that the aquatic creatures living around you are probably on birth control too.

No, there's no fish pharmacy doling out prescriptions. The study, which was recently published in Nature, found that the creatures are ingesting a synthetic hormone called 17a-ethinylestradiol, which is found in oral birth control. But unlike humans, who can stop taking the pill and then get pregnant, many fish that have ingested oral contraceptives become sterile. In the fish tested for the study, a 30 percent drop in fertilization rates was observed.

“If those trends continued, the potential for declines in overall population numbers might be expected in future generations,” Ramji Bhandari, a visiting scientist at USGS, told The Washington Post. “These adverse outcomes, if shown in natural populations, could have negative impacts on fish inhabiting contaminated aquatic environments.”

The study confirms research from the University of New Brunswick released last year that studied the effects of oral contraceptives on aquatic life. In that study, researchers put small amounts of the hormone into an artificial lake full of minnow. The result? The population of the tiny fish was nearly eliminated.

Similar to antidepressants, people take oral contraceptives, and the residue from the pills ends up being excreted in our urine. The hormones can easily travel from our toilets to the nation’s waterways because municipal treatment plants aren’t equipped to remove trace amounts of chemical byproducts. Other studies have found that because of human use, our water is polluted with tiny amounts of cocaine and ecstasy. And fish absorb it all.

What's the fix to this scary situation? Nearly 64 percent of American women in their child-bearing years use some form of birth control, and about 27 percent of them take the pill. It's just not realistic to expect them to stop taking oral contraceptives without convenient, low-cost birth control alternatives. But if we don't want a mass die-off of fish because they've all been made sterile, the nation's scientists better get cracking on creating contraceptive methods that aren't so toxic.