Last week marked the beginning of Recyclemania at Rider, an eight-week competition among colleges to determine who can recycle the most. The first week of the competition focused on recycling plastic. Between Rider and Westminster, there are many opportunities to avoid allowing your plastic to become pollution. We have single-stream recycling, water bottle refill stations to limit plastic bottle usage, green-to-go options for food… but why is all of this important?
Well, if we skip recycling our plastics, we may be faced with an unexpected consequence: intersex fishes.
Let’s look to Swanton, Vermont. Foliage is thick, the air is crisp, and green is so vibrant you can smell it. Swanton is home to Missiquoi National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of the most “pristine wetland ecosystems in the Northeast,” according to National Geographic. But be careful, that water is not so crystal clear after all. Just ask the poor smallmouth bass — males, in particular.
Scientists have recently discovered a startling new phenomenon in these relatively common and native fish: Males are becoming intersex. Defined by Webster’s New World College Dictionary as “an abnormal individual having characteristics intermediate between those of male and female,” this means that female smallmouth bass eggs are now being found in male testes. And the number of cases is not a minority. Scientists studied 19 national refuges in the Northeast and found that a whopping 85 percent of males are now intersex. Unlike hermaphroditic fish (clown fish, for example), that are born with male and female organs, these bass are not meant to be both genders. Instead of serving the natural purpose of aiding their reproductive process, it can actually make them sterile.
Pollution is the explanation for this gender confusion among the bass, and it is not unique to their species alone. Especially in a beautiful place like Vermont, the question is, how did so much pollution leach into the ecosystem? Scientists were looking mostly into estrogen chemicals like those found in birth control pills, the herbicide atrazine, and the plasticizer — Bisphenol A, or BPA.
BPA seems to be showing up everywhere these days. The CDC recently did a study that showed 93 percent of people over the age of 6 have detectable amounts of BPA in their system. How can a 6-year-old already have that quantity of a possibly harmful chemical in his or her system? Because it is present in the ever-so-common polycarbonate plastics. Plastic water bottles, plastic food packaging and even some medical devices are culprits. The concern is that BPA has been shown to cause defects in fetuses and in newborns. Although the infertility rates in the U.S. have dropped in the past few years, the percentage of women experiencing problems carrying to term has spiked from 8.5 percent to 15 percent in the population of married couples 15-44 years old, according to Livescience. We are allowing BPA to remain in our society even though it is hindering our ability to reproduce effectively.
This brings me back to Vermont, and our friend the smallmouth bass. If chemicals such as BPA are reaching even the most preserved refuges in America, then what is to be said about the quantity of harmful substances we expose ourselves to every day? We are already seeing the results of our arrogance, as I imagine the story of the smallmouth bass is only the beginning. We have created a beast, and now are slowly seeing the consequences. Awareness should be paramount in continuing research on BPA and other chemicals like it. Save the fish.
Printed in the 02/17/16 issue.