The impact of chemical exposure on sperm health: a study on plastics, pesticides, and pills.
Last year, a group of scientists from different countries released a worldwide analysis that showed a significant decrease in sperm concentrations in semen over the past 50 years. Between 1973 and 2018, there was an average decline of 1.2% per year, which increased to 2.6% annually after 2000.
Their final discovery was alarming: there has been a 50% decline in sperm counts, dropping from an average of 99 million sperm per milliliter to only 47 million. This decline suggests that a larger portion of men may face difficulties with conception within a year.
The quantity of sperm is decreasing. But what is the reason for this?
A less than ideal diet, high levels of stress, consuming too much alcohol, smoking, and being obese are all recognized as factors that can harm sperm quality. However, these factors do not provide a complete understanding of the issue. Recent studies have revealed a link between chemical exposure and fertility, indicating that there are many more factors that impact our ability to conceive.
What are the substances that cause chemical exposure, and how can their negative effects on sperm health be minimized?
Exposure to plastics
In a recent study, Andreas Kortenkamp, a human toxicology professor at Brunel University, conducted a unique evaluation on the effects of common plastic chemicals on sperm concentration and count.
The study focused on the collection of chemicals found in plastics, referred to as the “chemical cocktail.” With over 13,000 different chemicals present, the potential health effects of many remain unknown. The research revealed a list of the most concerning substances, including bisphenol A and its substitutes commonly used in plastic food containers and can linings, phthalates, and polychlorinated dioxins, a persistent chemical created through the burning of plastic.
Scientists have concluded that everyday items and pollution in the environment can expose humans to these substances at levels that are up to 100 times higher than the accepted safety threshold. This puts us in danger of experiencing disturbances in our endocrine system and potential problems with our reproductive health, metabolism, and immune function.
The results, which were documented in the publication Environment International, have significance for pregnant individuals, as pregnancy is a crucial time for reproductive growth and development.
How can we address this issue? It is feasible to decrease our contact with these substances by refraining from using plastic goods, especially food packaged in plastic and plastic-based apparel. Studies have demonstrated that these chemicals can seep into food and be absorbed by our skin.
However, Kortenkamp does not want to solely blame individuals for avoiding these chemicals. He explains, “The issue is that these chemicals are so prevalent that it is nearly impossible to reduce your exposure through individual efforts.” For example, BPA, which imitates estrogen and disrupts the endocrine system, can be found in common food products like store-bought dairy items.
Kortenkamp states that taking regulatory action is necessary to address the issue of BPA at its source. In line with this, the European Food Safety Authority has suggested a significant decrease of 20,000 times in the accepted level of BPA in the European Union. Similarly, a group of environmental and public health organizations in the US are urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to impose stricter restrictions on bisphenol A and its alternatives in food-contact plastics.
On the other hand, the FDA and other manufacturers in the chemical industry argue that the existing regulations for BPA are sufficient and that the chances of it causing health problems are low.
People have the option to submit a “Citizen Petition” to the FDA, requesting stricter regulations on BPA. However, these petitions may not receive a response for a prolonged period of time. Another, more timely approach is to contact political representatives, as they have the power to oversee regulatory agencies like the FDA. By maintaining communication with their representatives, individuals can continue to push for change and also use online petitions to raise awareness about the hazardous effects of bisphenols and other toxic chemicals found in plastics.
Exposure to acetaminophen
The commonly used pain reliever, Acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol in Europe, is often sold under the brand names Tylenol and Panadol. It is widely accepted as the safest option for pregnant women. According to Kortenkamp, many people do not even think of it as a medication due to its widespread use.
Kortenkamp’s study analyzed five different research studies and all of them concluded that there is a greater likelihood of male infants being born with undescended testes, which is a potential indicator of low sperm quality, if the expecting individual consumed acetaminophen towards the end of the first trimester and the beginning of the second trimester.
What actions can we take to address this issue? According to Kortenkamp, the timing is crucial. The reported consequences do not arise if pregnant women take paracetamol during the initial stages of pregnancy, nor do they occur during the later stages.
Exposure to pesticides
A study conducted by researchers from George Mason University (GMU) in November examined fifty years of peer-reviewed research and definitively determined that exposure to pesticides containing organophosphates and carbamates is linked to a decrease in sperm concentration in different situations and environments.
According to Dr. Melissa Perry, the dean of GMU’s college of public health, there is strong and lasting evidence of a connection between pesticide exposure and sperm health.
Perry states that, other than being exposed through work with pesticides, the primary means of exposure to these chemicals is through food.
What actions can we take in regards to this issue? Since 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency has regularly published a guide for consumers on how to avoid the “dirty dozen” produce items. These include strawberries, spinach, pears, and kale, which tend to have high levels of pesticide residue. To reduce exposure to contaminants, it is recommended to clean these items thoroughly with baking soda and running water, blanch them, or peel them when possible.
Pesticides have the tendency to accumulate in the body through the food chain, resulting in high levels in animal products. Studies have shown that individuals who consume meat and eggs have a higher intake of pesticides compared to vegetarians, making vegetarianism or veganism beneficial dietary choices for those looking to decrease their exposure to these chemicals, which are purposely made for killing.
According to Perry, the use of pesticides on golf courses, school grounds, public spaces, and residential lawns can have a significant and cumulative impact on sperm health.
It is difficult to completely avoid these toxins on an individual level, just like it is hard to avoid the chemicals found in plastic.
Perry is optimistic that the strong findings from GMU’s research will inspire lawmakers to take action and address the pressing issue of diminishing reproductive health. This could also facilitate open discussions and break down the negative associations that can make those dealing with infertility feel like they have failed personally, when in reality, addressing this crisis at a societal level is crucial in safeguarding everyone from dangerous chemicals.