Op-ed: Oklahoma’s wastewater bill targeting toxics isn’t about health or the environment

Oklahoma Senate Bill 1812 was introduced in January 2024 and proposes wastewater monitoring requirements for urinary metabolites of nine chemicals: benzophenone, bisphenol A (BPA), estrone, ethinylestradiol, musk ketone, pregnanediol, testosterone, tonalide and mifepristone.

Some of these are endocrine-disrupting chemicals associated with plastics, cosmetics and food additives. Most are naturally-produced steroid hormones. Ethinylestradiol, for example, is a common hormonal birth control and mifepristone is a safe and effective abortion drug.

Bill 1812 is an attempt to hijack environmental concerns about endocrine- disrupting chemicals to control Oklahomans’ health choices, extending beyond abortion to include birth control, gender-affirming pharmaceuticals and endogenous hormones. Environmental justice advocates must think critically about regressive social policy disguised as environmentalism.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are associated with wide-ranging adverse health effects in many models, including humans, and indeed pose a daunting environmental health threat. Industrial chemicals, pesticides and veterinary medicines likely account for most environmental endocrine-disrupting chemicals contamination, but popular messaging focuses on birth control. The U.S. government and individual states have taken some steps to prevent endocrine-disrupting chemicals exposure, largely by regulating industrial activities and consumer products.

These programs target the largest sources. Oklahoma has not adopted protective industrial or consumer product regulations for any of the chemicals identified in Bill 1812, and certainly not their urinary metabolites. Searching for these metabolites does not prevent human exposure or address sources. Monitoring wastewater for birth control, hormone therapies and abortion drugs does, however, serve to monitor and criminalize health behaviors.

Misrepresentation of the “feminizing” effects of endocrine disruptors on amphibians, reptiles and fish have been weaponized against queer and trans people and those who use birth control. Mifepristone is a target as states further restrict abortion access. States are attempting to outlaw the sale and use of these medications. Hormones used for gender-affirming healthcare are subject to increasing regulation, too. This legislation is not always easy to identify. At first glance, Bill 1812 looks like a win for environmentalists; it proposes wastewater monitoring and mentions the hazardous plasticizer BPA. However, testing for the metabolites of these contaminants does nothing to address the main sources of pollution. Indeed, its author, Republican State Sen. Nathan Dahm, claims no environmentalist motivations and has sponsored at least seven bills to limit abortion access and one to “end the practice of gender destruction.”

Misrepresentation of the “feminizing” effects of endocrine disruptors on amphibians, reptiles and fish have been weaponized against queer and trans people and those who use birth control.

Wastewater monitoring is often a step toward standards and limits. Once enacted, emitters, including wastewater treatment plants, can be penalized for exceedances. These limits can be set at the lowest detection level if the risk is deemed great enough, effectively making emission illegal. Liability can be deferred to an upstream source; environmental advocates often call for upstream regulation for industrial polluters. If such limits were imposed on the chemicals listed in Bill 1812, could municipal customers be held liable for their metabolic products? Maybe the regulation wouldn’t be so individually targeted. But wastewater systems testing for mifepristone, gender-affirming pharmaceuticals and birth control metabolites while their legislators work to ban reproductive choice is a clear attempt to co-opt environmental monitoring for civil surveillance.