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"Pill" pollution

Read time: 3 mins

We can define it "pill pollution”. Yes, we're talking about just that, the “birth control pill” which, in the last fifty years has modified our sexual behavior and, as a result, the lives of hundreds of millions of people, making it possible to dissociate between sexuality and reproduction. Right now at least 100 million women are using the birth control pill. The problem is that this drug contains ethinylestradiol (EE2), a substance that goes from the waste water directly into rivers and lakes, spreads to the environment and it threatens the existence of entire populations of animals.

A research published in 2007 on the Proceedings of National Academy of Science (PNAS) in the United States demonstrated how it was found in a Canadian lake in quantities of only 5 parts to a trillion (or rather 5 parts of 1.000 billion), the EE2 caused the extinction of a fish species by attacking and systematically destroying the eggs of the pregnant fish. The debate on the EE2 environmental risk has established four types of general problems that concern us all closely. Based on the environmental evidence the European Commission has decided to intervene by regulating the amount of EE2 in the environment. The regulation, outlined in the Water Framework Directive issued last January, requires that by 2021 the EE2 concentration in water must not exceed 0,035 parts to a trillion (35 parts of a million billion).

The Directive's regulation brings about the first three sets of problems. The first is technical and, at least in appearance, the least difficult to resolve. To detect a concentration of a chemical substance outside a laboratory and in all aqueducts, rivers and lakes is a difficult task indeed. It will require a substantial effort to carry out the environment's chemical analysis. On top of this we need to add the purification system which still relies on a single solution: the use of granular activated carbon. The second problem is legal and social. In fact it's the first time that the environment is being kept under control due to a drug. This precedent is remarkable: it could bring about a change in the entire way we think of the cycle of drugs. Or rather consider the relationship between cost/benefits of a therapeutic substance and its environmental effects. The third problem: costs. It has been calculated that in order to ensure that the regulation is applied in England and Wales at least 30 billion Euros would have to be invested. A city with a population of 250.000, as written on Nature by Richard Owen, of the University of Exeter Business School, and Susan Jobling, of the Institute for the Environment of the Brunel University of Uxbridge, should invest initially 8 million Euros and add 800.000 Euros each year for managing the filter and control apparatus. Applying this regulation means that there would be a considerable increase in the water bill.

Is it worth it? And, above all – here's the fourth problem – who should decided? Last 24 April the European Parliament had a meeting with government representatives, the pharmaceutical companies and environmentalist groups to decide which substances to be kept under control should form part of the “priority” list. Richard Owen and Susan Jobling sustain that there is the lack of scientific citizenship. An exception to something which the European Union considers fundamental for the environment: the citizen's participation. The entire European population should be informed and placed in the condition to decide. Because these problems raised are of considerable importance and embody the concept of democracy in what Ulrich Beck defined as the “risk society”.

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