STEM Logo

Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#484: Drugging the Deep

Back in 1972 Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) which mandated certain levels of treatment for sewage discharged into the water. Avalon was required to build the sewage treatment plant out at Pebbly Beach to meet this requirement. At the time both Dr. Bob Given and myself testified that we felt such treatment was not necessary due to our city's small population and lack of industrial pollutants, and that indeed, the chemicals involved in the treatment process could create a more toxic mix in our waters than human sewage. Years later I discovered that a letter regarding this that I had sent to Dr. Paul Ehrlich at Stanford had been forwarded to Nobel Prize winner Dr. Joshua Lederberg. There must have been some validity to my claim since Dr. Lederberg kept that letter until his death and it is included in the Nobel laureate's official archives at the National Institute of Health.

Of course looking back today, the decision to build the treatment plant was probably a wise one since our population has increased significantly. While a reasonable level of human waste can be dealt with through normal ecosystem processes, higher concentrations are not a good thing. And back in the late 1970s I actually worked for a time as a pollution control engineer for Northrop dealing with that corporation's compliance with respect to industrial chemicals and the FWPCA. Pollution levels for many potentially dangerous or ecologically disruptive chemicals have certainly declined as a result of this law and its later amendments. However, there is a whole range of chemicals being introduced today that have not been adequately addressed or controlled. You might be surprised at their source... you and me!

What? Me, you (and I) say? Yes... that is unless you are completely free of prescription and non-prescription medicines. I take two prescription meds. After ingesting them (gag), my body processes them and eventually discards them and/or their by-products dissolved in my urine or... never mind. You do the same whether you take aspirin for a headache, Ambien to sleep after a stressful day, Lipitor (Atorvastatin) to control high levels of cholesterol or any one of the billions and billions of chemicals designed to create "better living through chemistry." Waste streams from cities and towns across the globe are releasing such chemicals and few of them are controlled by the treatment processes involved in today's sewage plants.

Let's look at one example. I don't want to pick on women.... Lord knows the GOP has done enough of that recently. However, many women elect to take birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. These pills may taken on a regular basis for years. Therefore there is a fairly steady stream of their active ingredients into the ocean (or freshwater bodies) adjacent to the plants that treat their town's municipal sewage. While this may be a "non-issue" for the tiny town of Harmony, California, or even Catalina Island, it can be an ecologically significant one for a major metropolitan area like the Los Angeles-Orange County megalopolis! It is estimated that 80 million women take the pill world-wide.

A study in Sweden reported in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found higher levels of the hormone levonorgestrel in the blood of fish from adjacent waters than in the women who lived nearby! Medical News Today stated that high levels of this estrogen-mimicing hormone creates a risk factor that reduces the ability of fish to reproduce by causing infertility. Most early studies, which led to the reduction of hormone levels in "The Pill," were focused on the effects of them on human health. In the past few years increased scientific effort has been focused on the environmental impacts of the invasion of natural ecosystems by these chemicals.

During the last decade, Dr. Karen Kidd conducted a controlled experiment in freshwater lakes up in Canada. Her team found that increased levels of estrogen did not affect algae, bacteria or invertebrates. Of course I would not expect it to since estrogen is a vertebrate hormone. However, the reproductive level in some fish species plummeted in part due to the "complete disintegration of the testes." Other studies have shown that estrogen levels in freshwater may cause the males of certain fish species to begin acting like females. Such "gender bending" chemicals could certainly disrupt reproductive behavior in the ocean, especially within nearshore fish populations.

I have written previously about my belief that certain marine vertebrate species can detect human sex pheromones, another group of chemicals tied to reproductive behavior. On several occasions when I've dived with a lovely lady buddy and encountered a courting pair of giant sea bass, the male bass has bristled and threatened me... then swam over to my lovely buddy to bill and coo at her (leaving me free to approach his girl... but just to film, of course!). Due to evolution, vertebrate pheromones and hormones in different species may be similar enough to affect the behavior in another species. Here in our California waters, I wonder what might happen to sheephead and other wrasses, which often begin life as females and turn into males, due to elevated human hormone levels in the water.

Now men, don't gloat. A number of you take that "little blue pill." I can only imagine what effects that might have on fish, marine mammals and other vertebrates. Imagine the potential consequences for the largest animal to ever live on the face of the Water Planet, the blue whale. My, my, my. Hmmm... maybe the presence of its active ingredient, sildenafil citrate, might counter the negative effects of estrogen and its mimics on male marine vertebrates!

Humans of both genders suffering from depression may take anti-depressants such as Prozac (fluoxetine). It is not fully processed by the body and remaining levels of it are excreted into our toilets and sewage systems. Of course if these chemicals serve to improve the mental health of fish, it may not be a bad thing (assuming they are depressed, too). However, goldfish subjected to various concentrations of fluoxetine exhibited decreased sperm production and had their reproductive systems affected by the chemical. Who knows what ecological effects, both individually and through synergistic interactions, the soup of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals might be causing in our waters?

© 2012 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

To return to the list of ALL of Dr. Bill's "Dive Dry" newspaper columns, click here.


"The Pill" and "the little blue pill;" the pharmaceutical soup in wastewater and a sheephead rather confused as to its gender identity!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2011 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia