Those striving to convince men to go green sadly now have some powerful words at their disposal – infertility and shrinkage.
Reproductive health researcher Professor Shanna Swan says male sperm counts decreased by 59 per cent from 1973 to 2011 and the rate is still increasing. Her new book, Count Down, asks if our fertility crisis – largely put down to hormone-disrupting chemicals – puts humanity “on the brink of extinction”.
If that wasn’t enough, lawyer and activist Erin Brockovich says these toxic chemicals are shrinking penis size and testicular volume.
Prof. Swan says, on current projections, sperm counts will reach zero in 2045. And it’s not just men who should be alarmed. “In some parts of the world, the average twenty-something woman today is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35,” she says.
The culprit? Prof. Swan says “delayed childbearing, choice or lifestyle” are affecting humanity’s reproductive health. But chemicals play a “major causal role”. Especially chemicals that “interfere with or mimic the body’s sex hormones – such as testosterone and oestrogen”.
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“Phthalates, used to make plastic soft and flexible, are of paramount concern,” Prof. Swan told The Guardian. “They are in everybody and we are probably primarily exposed through food as we use soft plastic in food manufacture, processing and packaging. They lower testosterone and so have the strongest influences on the male side, for example diminishing sperm count, though they are bad for women, too, shown to decrease libido and increase risk of early puberty, premature ovarian failure, miscarriage and premature birth.”
Phthalates are called the “everywhere chemicals” so ubiquitous is their use in modern products.
Bisphenol A (BPA), used to harden plastic and found in cash-register receipts and the lining of some canned-food containers, is another villain. It increases the risk of fertility challenges for women and men exposed to BPA by their jobs, show decreased sperm quality, reduced libido and higher rates of erectile dysfunction.
Flame retardants, pesticides and per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are also of concern. PFAS harm sperm production, disrupt the male hormone and are correlated to a “reduction of semen quality, testicular volume and penile length”.
These chemicals don’t break down in the human body and they can accumulate over time. We are exposed to them via contaminated soil and water used to grow food; packaging of food products, and equipment that uses PFAS during food processing.
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Prof. Swan admits her dire predictions are “speculative extrapolations”, but there is no evidence that drastically reduced sperm counts are reversing. If 2017 rates continue, by 2045, every couple will need assisted reproduction to have a family, she says.
“Work by Swan and her colleagues found that expectant mothers exposed to phthalates produced sons with a shorter anogenital distance – the span from the anus to the base of the penis. This correlates with a smaller penis and lower sperm count,” The Times reported.
“The rate of adverse reproductive changes in males is increasing by about 1 per cent a year. So, sperm counts and testosterone levels are declining by 1 per cent a year and rates of testicular cancer and erectile dysfunction (which some research suggests could also sometimes be caused by environmental factors) are up by about the same. Women are experiencing an increase in miscarriages of 1 per cent.”
Prof. Swan advocates the creation of a new generation of chemicals and better regulation of those we already make. She says most chemicals are not regulated in the United States.
“The chemical industry must start producing chemicals that can be used in everyday products that are non-hormonally active. Regrettable substitution – where one harmful chemical is replaced by another untested one, which then turns out to have the same risks – must also stop,” she says.
“And we need to test the chemicals we are currently using – and not just at high doses and not just one at a time, because we are being exposed to a large number.”
Despite all the doom, Prof. Swan believes we can rectify the fertility crisis.
“We have the ingenuity and the resources to do it. But we need a recognition of the problem and the will to change.”
Prof. Swan’s tips to avoid dangerous chemicals:
- use the giki app to identify cosmetics containing chemicals
- choose alternative menstrual products that are free of the phthalates, bisphenols and pesticides found in some disposable pads and tampons
- check labels and avoid anything featuring the words danger, warning, poison or fatal
- eat unprocessed foods to reduce your exposure through plastic
- when cooking, don’t use Teflon or anything coated and don’t microwave in plastic
- for personal care and household products use a minimum of simple products and try to avoid those that are scented; phthalates are added to hold scent
- refer to free consumer guides from the non-profit Environmental Working Group that provide information about specific products.
Are you already a follower of the tips above? Or will you now investigate more thoroughly the plastics you are using?
Read more: The link between fertility and dementia
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