Hormones and other chemicals in drinking water won’t actually kill you… yet

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Image courtesy of Association of Reproductive Health Professionals

When I moved out to the Netherlands to study abroad in mid-January of 2017, I was told something that struck my mind as peculiar. One day, during one of our orientation meetings, the school staff casually slipped into the lecture that there was a high presence of hormones in the water that could have an effect on birth rates. The mention wasn’t followed up upon, and was almost completely forgotten by everyone else, but for some reason it couldn’t leave my mind. One day, after wondering again what the staff member meant, I decided to look into the matter.

I found a Daily Mail Health article titled “Fertility timebomb found in drinking water.” The article essentially stated that a hormone found in drinking waters was causing male fish to develop eggs and female reproductive ducts, and that this may affect the sperm count levels in men. The article then pointed the blame to birth control pills and other contraceptives, which have ethanol oestradiol, an artificial estrogen hormone found in oral contraceptives, and are secreted into sewage systems via human waste.

So how does this relate to the Netherlands? I decided to take my research elsewhere, and looked at the Dutch government’s website, which stated that “the primary sources of these pollutants are agriculture and industry,” but also continued on to say “remnants of medicines are secreted and thus increasingly are found in Dutch surface water. Drinking water is collected from this surface water (especially in the western part of the country). However, the amounts of medicine found are low and have a negligible effect on public health.”

So which was it? Was it because of birth control or because of agriculture? I took my questions to Jan Peelen, the Policy Advisor for Infrastructure and the Environment at the Dutch Embassy in Washington D.C., and his answers fell more or less in the middle, especially in The Netherlands.

“Ladies take anti-conception medicine, that your body breaks that down to a certain level, people go to the toilet and that residue of that medicine comes into water,” Peelen told me over the phone. “A lot of water in the developed world is treated but a lot of these procedures are not focusing on medicine, and what you see now is especially like in countries like the Netherlands where we’re very tight on water quality- we are the first to notice like ‘hey, you know, we always say this is clean water but you see like pretty high levels of hormones’.”

However, the bigger culprit in chemical pollution in the water points to waste from hospitals. “We did tests, if you take a hospital, you know people in a hospital take all kinds of chemicals, and you just look at the water runoff from, you know, all the pee from all the patients and stuff,” Peelen continued in our interview. “It’s very high, relatively high levels of chemicals and hormones, because it’s a very high concentration of people who take meds. So right now we’re looking at can we try to treat this wastewater before it leaves the hospital.”

Following our conversation, Peelen emailed me a link to the tests he had mentioned earlier, which actually linked painkillers like aspirin, medications for epilepsy, and prozac were more common than birth control.

W.E.M. van den Broek, a general physician at the doctor’s office in Well, Limburg, also affirmed that the issue is mainly from other medicines.  “It’s natural, it’s what women are producing [themselves],” Dr. van den Broek told me at his office. “I don’t think that’s the issue. I think it’s what you get when you have cancer,” he continued, referencing the dangerous medications that those with cancer take.

So it wasn’t just birth control pills, like it is widely believed, but mainly pharmaceuticals given to people either in hospitals or through over-the-counter medications. Well, what about agriculture, which seems to be another culprit?

Apparently, hormones from agriculture isn’t really the issue, at least here in The Netherlands, because of the opposition to hormone treated food.

“If you treat cows with hormones, their waste will have strains of that, and since cattle is a very intense industry, the problem will be higher,” Peelen expained. “That’s generally a reason people in Europe don’t want hormone treated beef and stuff.”

However, Peelen believes the issue should be noted in other places. “I know here in the US the regulation of hormones are less strict,” he said. “I think it will be a bigger issue here than in Europe.”

Well, how much of a health issue is this anyways? All sources point to it not really being an issue at all. All studies found on the matter have pointed the levels in the water to be “negligible,” and no real side effects on humans have been found.

“I don’t have a concern for the health here,” Dr. van den Broek said when I asked. “But we have to be aware what we are doing with our environment, I think we have a government and so many rules that we are quite safe here. “

“It’s not a health issue, it’s not something you should be worried about,” Peelen insisted. “But it’s a trend we see, because we are getting stricter and stricter and are seeing more and more and are like ‘hey, this is actually happening and we might want to look in on it and act on it before it becomes an issue’.”

The issue of high levels of hormones and other medications seems to be the same as other cases of polluting our life sources— no, there isn’t an issue now, but who knows in the future? Even in the Netherlands, one of the countries actually taking note on this issue, there is still worry about the future. It’s time to start actually taking note of this and finding ways to reduce the release of these chemicals in the water, and going beyond just informing people of its presence.

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