Humans Face a Shocking, Chemical-Induced Reproductive Crisis

CC BY 2.0. JD Hancock

Endocrine disrupting chemicals in our environment have damaged male sperm, most of which are now misshapen and unable to swim properly.

The image at the top of Nicholas Kristof’s column for the New York Times shows a single sperm trying to swim, but instead it is moving wildly in circles. According to the caption, the sperm is a victim of an endocrine-disrupting chemical in sunscreen that has damaged its swimming ability.

Unfortunately, it’s not alone. Kristof goes on to describe a looming reproductive crisis on a scale that few people understand. Scientists say that sperm counts have plummeted in the past 75 years and that 90 percent of a typical young man’s sperm nowadays is misshapen and unable to swim properly. Donor clinics are having trouble finding viable sperm:

“One recent study found that of sperm donor applicants in Hunan Province, China, 56 percent qualified in 2001 because their sperm met standards of healthiness. By 2015, only 18 percent qualified.”

The culprit is endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which are found in plastics, furniture, flame retardants, cosmetics, receipts, nail polish, hand sanitizer, metal food cans, toys, pesticides, fast food, and countless other items – ordinary items, as you can see, that we handle on a daily basis. The disruptors pretend to be our own hormones, which throws off the delicate balance of growth and reproduction.

Kristof explains that damage to the reproductive system starts in utero, passed from mother to fetus:

“Male and female fetuses start pretty much the same, and then hormones drive differentiation of males from females. The problem seems to be that endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones and confuse this process, interfering with the biological process of becoming male.”

That this is caused by environmental factors is underscored by the fact that immigrant populations retain their country of origin’s risks of reproductive health only for the first generation. By the time the second generation is reproducing, their risks of reproductive health match those of their new country. As scientist Christine Lepisto wrote for TreeHugger in 2014, “Such rapid changes cannot be explained by pre-existing genetic conditions, but look like influences of environmental conditions.”

Kristof blames the crisis partly on lack of public policy. With the reproductive wellbeing of tens of millions of people being affected, governments should be pushing for greater regulation, but this is easier said than done. The industry resists regulation, unsurprisingly, and, as Lepisto explained, endocrine disruptors can be tricky to pin down:

“Endocrine disrupting chemicals often are not ‘hazardous’ according to traditional definitions of toxicity or carcinogenicity, and therefore escape traditional regulations prohibiting dangerous chemicals in many products or requiring labeling.”

In the meantime, avoid the chemicals as much as possible at home. Refuse receipts. Avoid storing and heating food in plastic. Buy BPA-free food cans. Eat organic to escape pesticide residues. Don’t take Tylenol and other painkillers during pregnancy. Use the EWG Consumer Guides when in doubt.