Water supplies that have been contaminated by synthetic hormones found in contraceptives will cost Britain upwards of $46 billion to clean up, Guardian Science Editor Robin McKie reported on Saturday.
The culprit is ethinyl estradiol (EE2), the primary active ingredient of contraceptive pills, according to McKie. The substance has polluted rivers, streams, and drinking water supplies in the UK, and the most recent European Union (EU) water framework directive is calling for drastic reductions in EE2, which has been linked to a condition known as intersex in some types of freshwater fish.
Intersex is a condition in which a human or animal has an atypical combination of the physical features usually used to distinguish male members of a species with female ones.
The condition has caused “significant drops” in the population of several species of freshwater fish, though at this point there is no evidence that any humans have been affected similarly by the chemical, the Guardian reported.
However, as Exeter University Toxicology Professor Richard Owen told the newspaper, “That does not mean we will not find impacts in future. But do we want to wait until we see effects in humans, as we did with thalidomide and BSE, or do we act before harm is done?”
The EU’s plan, “which would involve upgrading the sewage network and significantly increasing household water bills, is controversial,” McKie said. “Water and pharmaceutical companies dispute the science involved and argue the costs are prohibitive. By contrast, many environmental researchers say the proposal is sound.”
Research has reportedly discovered noticeable levels of EE2 in the waters of 40 out of 50 sites studied, and according to McKie, test sites closer to sewage works locations tended to have higher EE2 levels. Similar results have been discovered in other locations throughout Europe, she said, and as a result the EU has proposed caps of 0.035ppt for ethinyl estradiol in water throughout the continent.
Upgrading sewage facilities in the UK would cost a reported £30 billion ($46 billion).
“The question we have to ask ourselves is straightforward,” Owen, a one-time chief of environment and health at the UK Environment Agency. “Are we willing to pay up or would we rather settle for environmental damage associated with flexible fertility?”
The EU will reach a final decision in the proposal in November, McKie said.