Issues and concerns relating to fertility, or the ability to conceive and bear children through normal sexual activity, have become increasingly alarming in today’s modern world. Despite of, and most probably because of modern technology and advances in medicine, as well as environmental changes and hazards caused by chemicals, men and women of child-bearing age have been dealing with infertility concerns for decades now.
The medical definition of infertility, i.e., failure to become pregnant after 12 months of regular unprotected sex, focuses on women, men, however, are not spared from infertility issues as well.
Generally, healthy couples in their twenties who have regular unprotected sex have a 25% chance of becoming pregnant each month. Statistically, for every six couples, one couple is infertile; with 40% of cases due to the male, 40% due to the female, 10% due to both partners, and the remaining 10% due to unknown causes. Incidentally, low sperm count occurs in one out of 25 males, and one in 35 males is sterile.1
Spotlight on Low Sperm Count: Zoom In on Chemical Culprits
The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that more than 90% of male infertility cases are due to low sperm count, poor semen quality, or both.2 Other contributing factors that can cause sperm abnormalities include anatomical problems, hormonal imbalances, disease, genetic defects and external factors like lifestyle habits and chemical exposure.
A sperm count of less than 20 million/mL is considered low. However, with the emerging concern on low sperm count prevailing over the last several decades, the World Health Organization has had to continually lower what’s considered the normal level in terms of sperm count, otherwise, too many men will be classified as infertile.
From the intrinsic and external factors causing low sperm count, let us zoom in on chemicals as culprits. Alarmingly, what seems to be the culprit for these sperm abnormalities are chemicals which can be found in common household items.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
According to a recent study published in the journal Reproductive Toxology, the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which can be found in many plastic products including the lining of canned foods and soda cans, in toys and water bottles, and even in cash register receipts, may cause fertility problems leading to reproductive damage. This hormone disruptor is so pervasive that it was even found to be in the umbilical cord blood of 90% of newborn infants tested.
The first epidemiological evidence of BPA’s adverse effect on semen quality, as published in the journal Fertility and Sterility,3 shows that higher levels of BPA in urine were associated with decrease in sperm concentration, total sperm count, sperm vitality and sperm motility.
Phthalates related to female and male fertility
These chemicals, also known as “plasticizers” because they make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) softer, more resilient and flexible, can be found in the following items:
- Packaged food and beverages such as milk, cheese, meat, margarine, eggs, cereal products, baby food, infant formula, and fish
- Building and furniture materials, including furniture upholstery, shower curtains, mattresses, wall coverings, floor tiles and vinyl flooring
- Fragrances in beauty products and cosmetics
- Plastic toys, feeding bottles, pacifiers, teethers and nipples
- Medical devices such as medical tubing, blood storage bags, and intravenous bags containing fluids used in hospitals.
Studies conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)4 have revealed that exposure to phthalates may be harmful to reproductive health and even to children, causing reduced sperm counts, genital defects, metabolic abnormalities and reduced testosterone in babies and adults, incomplete testicular descent in foetuses, testicular atrophy or structural abnormality and inflammation in newborns.
These chemicals are nicknamed “gender-benders” as they affect gender development in males, such as smaller genitals and incomplete testicular descent, leading to impaired reproductive development. The chemical also appears to make the overall genital tracts of boys slightly more feminine. It is believed that phthalates have these adverse effects because they reduce testosterone synthesis by interfering with an enzyme needed to produce the male hormone.
Red Alert: The Vanishing Male
The documentary entitled “The Disappearing Male”5 comprehensively presents the phenomenon of the vanishing male in today’s population, and the role of environmental chemicals in interfering with reproductive development. These endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as BPA and phthalates, can mimic or block chemicals naturally found in the body, alter hormonal levels, and thus, affect functions that these hormones control. These reproductive abnormalities include feminization of males (and masculine effects on females).
What’s so startling and alarming about this phenomenon is that it starts even before the baby is born. As the documentary reveals, “those most threatened by toxic chemicals are not adults, they are children and babies; but the most vulnerable of all have not even been born.”
Men and women exposed to the above-mentioned common items containing these chemicals have become the unwilling accessory to the “extinction of the male species”. Pregnant mothers unknowingly contribute to the alteration of their babies’ development since the effects of these chemicals can start in as early as 6 weeks into their pregnancy. Some pregnancies may even result in miscarriages. Most scary of all is that these adverse effects are permanent since the foetus has few defences against chemicals.
As one resource speaker in the documentary exclaims, “chemicals are killing boys in the womb.” At the rate things are going, it won’t be long before everyone will be asking, “Where have all the boys gone?”; and we won’t be dealing only with the extinction of the male species but the end of the human species as well.
Sources and References:
- ABC Health and Wellbeing
- University of Maryland Medical Center Report, Infertility in Men
- Fertil Steril. 2011 Feb;95(2):625-30.e1-4.
- Environment and Human Health, Inc., Human Exposures to DEHP
- Vimeo (Documentary: The Disappearing Male)