You are what you leak


You are a living filter.

Every time you urinate, you send a bit of yourself into the environment. This includes an array of chemicals, organic and artificial, that your body produces and absorbs — hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics and chemicals from plastics, beauty products, food additives and cleaners.

There is mounting scientific evidence that the chemical cocktail in your urine may be bad for the environment and human health. A recent study published in the journal BMJ Open, a product of the British Medical Journal, found a correlation between high use of hormonal contraceptives and high rates of death from prostate cancer.

Researchers looked at mortality rates from prostate cancer and rates of contraceptive use in 88 countries and found that those with the highest use of hormonal contraceptives also had the highest rates of prostate cancer mortality. It’s not the first study linking prostate cancer and estrogen exposure. Nor is it the first study linking oral contraceptive use to environment impact.

Here in Boulder in 2006, Professor David Norris, a CU researcher, found “feminized” male fish — male fish that had developed female sex characteristics — in Boulder Creek where water from the city’s wastewater treatment plant emptied into the creek. Norris found that male fathead minnows looked and behaved like female fish after only seven days of exposure to a mixture of effluent from the treatment plant, which was found to contain estrogen from birth control pills, and water from upstream.

But estrogen isn’t the only contaminant causing concern, and fathead minnows are not the only species impacted by human reliance on pharmaceuticals and other chemicals. How much of this chemical cocktail makes it into the average city’s drinking water? How does that affect human health over a person’s lifetime? How can these substances — called “emerging contaminants” — be safely kept from the environment?

No one has the answers yet. The city of Boulder, like cities across the country, is working on the issue. In 2008, a multi-million-dollar upgrade of the Boulder Wastewater Treatment Plant focused in part on this growing problem — and with much success.

According to Science Daily, Norris studied fathead minnow populations after the upgrade and found that male fish in a tank of pure effluent from the plant didn’t begin to show feminine characteristics until 28 days of exposure — a dramatic difference if not a complete resolution of the problem.

We know without a doubt that the water leaving the city is cleaner than it was before. But what about our drinking water?

Bret Linemfelser, water quality coordinator for the city, says the water that comes into the city is pretty clean prior to treatment, in part because Boulder is so high up in the watershed, getting about 80 percent of its water from Barker Reservoir and the Silver Lake/Lakewood watershed on North Boulder Creek. (The remaining 20 percent comes from Boulder Reservoir.)

To ascertain exactly how clean that water is, Linemfelser says, the city is currently monitoring the water supply to determine what kinds of emerging contaminants it might contain. Results from the study, undertaken jointly with the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, should be available in about three months, he said.

In the meantime, the message we should take away from this growing body of research is that what we put inside ourselves matters, whether it’s chemicals from shampoo, soap, household cleansers, food additives or pharmaceuticals. Buying cosmetics, skin and hair-care products free of phthalates and parabens, eating unprocessed foods, drinking hormone-free milk, taking antibiotics only when we need them, using environmentally friendly cleaning products, limiting our reliance on pharmaceuticals by taking care of our health — these are all small individual steps that, if undertaken by many, could have a long-lasting impact on the environment and all the creatures that depend on it, from fathead minnows to human beings.

With 7 billion people on the planet, we can’t afford for each one of us to be a chemical spill.

For information on how to safely dispose of pharmaceuticals, go to the city’s website: Respond: