You might not think it, but contraceptives have a detrimental effect on nature, whether it be an influx of hormones into the environment, or the build-up of physical detritus. And so, with a stiff sense of British awkwardness, environment asks: what is the environmental impact of contraception?
The contraceptive pill contributes to a significant environmental issue. Key ingredients include progestin and oestrogen. These can be transferred to the water supplies once nature has run its course. There are many subsequent problems that arise when compounds such as ethinyloestrogen, become present in water courses. It has been suggested that they affect the endocrine systems of humans and fish; they are often known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
EDCs may also affect natural hormonal messaging within organisms. For example, in fish they disrupt normal physiology, affect bone formation, and can even lead to the “feminisation” of males. In turn, this could cause behavioural or physiological changes, precipitating a population decrease. In humans, excess oestrogen has been connected to some cancers. However – just in case you are considering ditching the pills in order to save the fish – studies have shown that other sources contribute a much higher percentage of EDCs than the pill.
As for condoms, they tend to be as environmentally friendly as they are visually appealing. The issue with these curious and frankly rather amusing little entities lies within their chemical composition. Many are produced from latex – that is, from tree rubber – and are therefore biodegradable. Despite this, the stabilisers and preservatives used with the latex often prevent natural decomposition.
The problem worsens with contraceptives formed from polymers such as polyurethane or synthetic rubber. As with other plastics, they do not biodegrade. Instead, they lie in landfill and can cause significant respiratory issues for wildlife – they are, quite literally hard to swallow…
What developments can we expect to see in the future? Different filtration methods can be tested to minimise disruptive hormone influx in water supplies. But beyond this, efforts to improve contraception’s poor environmental record have not yet hit the spot. A somewhat misguided grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop “better” condoms appeared to completely disregard environmental considerations. And some rather gruesome research has looked at waste bovine tendons as a potential source for naturally biodegradable collagen lattices that might serve as a substitute for latex or polymers. But that may well turn out to be a case of “thanks but no thanks”.
The social, economic and health benefits of contraception vastly outweigh the negative environmental issues that it causes. So for the time being it seems that, though sex can be safe for us, it is bad for the environment.