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What happens when you put fish on the pill?

A New Brunswick research who used an experimental lake in northwestern Ontario as a petri dish to test what happens when fish are put on the birth control pill says better wasterwater treatment is needed to protect the environment.
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Karen Kidd, a professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John and the Canada Research Chair in Chemical Contamination of Food Webs, is set to give a lecture at the Vale Living With Lakes Centre Nov. 28. Supplied photo.
A New Brunswick research who used an experimental lake in northwestern Ontario as a petri dish to test what happens when fish are put on the birth control pill says better wasterwater treatment is needed to protect the environment.

Karen Kidd, a professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John and the Canada Research Chair in Chemical Contamination of Food Webs, was able to show estrogen levels found in typical municipal wastewater can cause fish species to become infertile.

She addressed the issue in a lecture late last month at the Vale Living With Lakes Centre.

Kidd began her research into estrogen's effects on fish in the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario.

After studying the lake for several years to get baseline data, she introduced estrogen in levels typically found in municipal wastewater.

The impact on fish in the lake was dramatic. Quickly, male fish responded by developing eggs.

By the second summer, the numbers of fathead minnows in the lake started to decline because they were unable to reproduce.

“We had a near extinction of the species in the lake,” Kidd said.

The study showed that even very low levels of estrogen “can be very effective at controlling fish populations and be an effective form of birth control for the species,” she said.

These results back up what's been seen in areas close to municipal water runoff — such as downstream of Montreal, Que. — where feminized fish have been found, she said.

So where is this estrogen coming from? While women naturally excrete the hormone naturally, the impact of the birth control pill also plays a role, Kidd said. As well, municipal wastewater contains byproducts from cleaning and personal care products, which can mimic estrogen, she said.

Because all mammals excrete estrogen, farming operations can introduce significant amounts of the hormone into the water, especially in areas where there's intense feedlots, Kidd said. Problems of this type are more common in the United States, where there's more farming operations of this kind, she said.

While some right-wing groups and even the Vatican have grabbed onto research such as Kidd's in their opposition to the birth control pill, the researcher herself doesn't think women should change their birth control practices.

“When I'm asked if whether women should stop taking the pill, my answer is a definite no, because we know that better wastewater treatment will remove almost all of the estrogens in the effluent,” Kidd said.

Advanced treatments can removed 95 to 99 per cent of the estrogen in wastewater, she said. The trouble is, improvements to water treatment is expensive, costing up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It's a matter of what the municipality can afford,” Kidd said.

She said most municipalities have secondary treatment, catching at least some of the estrogen before it's released into the environment.

For more information, visit www.livingwithlakes.ca.

Heidi Ulrichsen

About the Author: Heidi Ulrichsen

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