Is news about chemicals turning fish ‘gay’ in M'sia real, fake news or oversimplified?

Answer: There is simply too much info for it all to be printed in one news article.

Belmont Lay| August 16, 02:19 AM

What is this "gay fish" thing an expert in Malaysia is on about?

An expert in Malaysia has come out to warn that Malaysians are facing a new pollution threat in their water supply for which no one is prepared.

And the stakes are supposedly high: One moment Malaysians are straight, the next moment, they can turn gay because they consume fish.

The news of this "gay fish" threat was first reported by The Malaysian Insight on Aug. 15, 2019, and republished in full by Today on the same day.

Who is the expert?

Hydro-chemistry expert Professor Ahmad Zaharin Aris from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) made the claim, according to the article.

You can find Zaharin's Twitter account here.

What is the pollutant that is making fish "gay"?

The pollutants that can make sentient creatures "gay" are called endocrine disruptors (EDCs).

EDCs are hormone-mimicking chemicals.

They can lead to potentially disruptive development in humans and animals.

Zaharin said, according to The Malaysian Insight, EDCs are turning fish in Malaysian rivers “gay” and even “transsexual” by changing their hormones which, in turn, affect their sex.

So, if humans eat enough of this fish, they can also turn "gay".

Are EDCs as new as The Malaysian Insight reported it to be?

EDCs have been highlighted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which said the adverse effects of EDCs have been known for more than two decades.

So, it is in no way "new" -- unless two decades is quantified as "new" in comparison to geologic age.

So, how are EDCs affecting Malaysia?

Zaharin said these chemicals disrupt the human endocrine system, and are already present in Malaysia's drinking water and food supply.

But what is wrong with this assessment in Malaysia?

Compared to the assessment made by EPA in the US, Zaharin's assertion appears to be too certain.

The United States EPA is much more careful on its website with its pronouncements on EDCs and their effects.

EPA said it is uncertain about the levels of EDCs in the environment and the extent of its effects on wildlife, let alone the effects experienced by humans.

Where does EDCs come from?

Zaharin's claim is that EDCs are discharged from the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries while producing consumer items, such as deodorants, cleansers and medicines.  

Consumers, in turn, discharge EDCs when they use these items.

Zaharin's point, which isn't fully hashed out by The Malaysian Insight, appears to be a direct denouncement of the persistent river pollution that has led to water cuts in Selangor and sickened 6,000 people in Pasir Gudang, Johor.

What other things did the Malaysian expert say that should be fact-checked?

Zaharin said EDCs had caused extraordinary sex changes in fish.

This was after studies by UPM’s environmental studies faculty was carried out in some of Malaysia's water sources.

“They changed fish sexual preferences by disrupting their hormones so that males become attracted to males and females to females. In essence, gay and lesbian fish,” Zaharin said.

Where did Zaharin make his comment about "gay and lesbian fish"?

On Aug. 14, Zaharin made his comments about "gay and lesbian fish" at a seminar on river pollution organised by national water industry regular SPAN.

He did tweet about his attendance at the talk:

He also said: “There are also fish born with opposite reproductive organs, such as male fish with female organs and vice-versa. So when we eat too much of these fish, they can accumulate in our bodies.”    

The sex changes in fish and shell fish are due to active ingredients used in the production of family planning pills, he added.

What other claims in The Malaysian Insight article ought to be scrutinised?

The Malaysian Insight piece wrote:

Water experts consider EDCs a form of “emerging pollutants”, which are new chemicals and effluents found in increasing quantities in the environment.

But this is not entirely the full picture.

The last 20 years has seen awareness raised about EDCs in the United States.

In EPA's own words:

In the last two decades there has been a growing awareness of the possible adverse effects in humans and wildlife from exposure to chemicals that can interfere with the endocrine system.

This means EDCs are not new -- unless "new" means the past two decades.

EPA also wrote:

Clear evidence exists that some chemicals cause these effects in wildlife, but limited evidence exists for the potential of chemicals to cause these effects in humans at environmental exposure levels. Very few chemicals have been tested for their potential to interfere with the endocrine system. Current standard test methods do not provide adequate data to identify potential endocrine disruptors (EDs) or to assess their risks to humans and wildlife.

The issue then, is not that EDCs are new, but the effects of EDCs are only starting to get studied.

So, why does this information from Malaysia sound like a conspiracy theory?

Because notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from InfoWars in the US said pretty much the same thing a few years ago.

Except he said the water in the US is turning frogs gay.

Here's what Jones said, according to CNBC:

“The reason there’s so many gay people now is because it’s a chemical warfare operation, and I have the government documents where they said they’re going to encourage homosexuality with chemicals so that people don’t have children,” he said on his broadcast in 2010, according to NBC News.

Five years later, the theory took a turn. In a rant that has since become a meme and a line of t-shirts, Jones said he didn’t like the government “putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin’ frogs gay.”

“The majority of frogs in most areas of the United States are now gay,” Jones said in 2017. The claim was without evidence.

So, are EDCs a conspiracy theory or serious science?

It is serious science, but the results are not conclusive enough to make pronouncements with absolute certainty because there are a lot of effects that either have not been studied, or not studied enough.

For example, there is conflicting studies about the quality and quantity of human sperm in the last four decades.

EDCs could be blamed for any deterioration, but that is inconclusive.

Moreover, over the years, surgeons in hospitals have also seen an increase number of abnormal penises in males.

These developmental problems might be linked to hormone-mimicking chemicals such as EDCs, but it is inconclusive.

The real science discussion that took place in, say, 2015, is that EDCs impact frogs' sexuality and reproduction, and does cause male frogs to become feminised, and to engage in homosexual behavior.

But this particular EDCs came from pesticide.

It was floated then that some of these effects may have been passed on to humans, but how much of it is still unknown.

Why is gay fish alarming in Malaysia?

Malaysia's conservative stance plus the repeated appearance of homosexual relations to bring down politicians have made readers do a spit take that fishes are now perhaps also becoming gay in the country.

Anyway, here is the gay fish meme from South Park: