Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions

Supplying Safe Drinking Water: Don’t blame The Pill for estrogen in drinking water

February 16, 2011

Drinking water

Contrary to popular belief, estrogens
found in the nation’s drinking water
supplies are derived mostly from sources
other than birth control pills.
Credit: iStock

Summary

Contrary to popular belief, The Pill accounts for less than 1 percent
of the estrogens found in the nation’s drinking water supplies,
according to a recent analysis. The report in ACS’ biweekly journal
Environmental Science & Technology
suggests that most of
the estrogens enter drinking water supplies from other sources.

Contrary to popular belief, The Pill accounts for less than 1 percent of the estrogens found in the nation’s drinking water supplies, according to a recent analysis. The report in ACS’ biweekly journal Environmental Science & Technology suggests that most of the estrogens enter drinking water supplies from other sources. Here is Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco:

“Estrogen is a sex hormone. The one in your body is important for normal function and for reproductive health. Where the concern comes in is natural or synthetic chemicals that mimic or disrupt estrogen. These are often referred to as endocrine disruptors, and they can affect people and wildlife. Chronic exposure to these chemicals in the water supply could be linked to fertility problems and other health problems.”

Almost 12 million women of reproductive age in the United States take the pill, which is a synthetic form of estrogen, and their urine contains both synthetic and natural estrogens. Because of this, many people believe that oral contraceptives are the major source of estrogen in lakes, rivers, and streams. Woodruff and colleagues set out to investigate these claims. They analyzed recent studies to pin down the main sources of estrogens in water supplies.

“Our analysis found that the main estrogen in oral contraceptives has a lower predicted concentration in U.S. drinking water than natural estrogens from animal waste, which can be used untreated as a farm fertilizer and from synthetic estrogens, such as industrial sources. In addition, everyone excretes hormones in their urine, not just women taking the pill. The contribution of oral contraceptives is still relatively small when accounting for its potency.”

Some research cited in the report suggests that animal manure accounts for 90 percent of estrogens in the environment. Other research estimates that if just 1 percent of the estrogens in livestock waste reached waterways, it would comprise 15 percent of the estrogens in the water supply.

Smart Chemists/Innovative Thinking

Smart chemists. Innovative thinking. That’s the key to solving global challenges of the 21st Century. Please check out more of our full-length podcasts on wide-ranging issues facing chemistry and science, such as promoting public health, developing new fuels and confronting climate change, at www.acs.org/globalchallenges. Today’s podcast was written by John Simpson. I’m Adam Dylewski at the American Chemical Society in Washington.

Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D.
Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D.,
University of California,
San Francisco