My wife and I recently watched the dystopic action thriller “Children of Men”, about a future when women cease to give birth because men no longer make sperm. We may be approaching the time when that becomes a reality.
It has been known for decades that men are producing fewer sperm than they did in the past. What was news to me is that modern men’s penises are getting smaller and are more likely to be malformed. Reading a scientific study on the subject made me very concerned.
Worldwide, almost all people have tiny traces of “forever chemicals” in their bodies, also called “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs). These chemicals have been tested in animals and found to be safe at much higher levels than we carry. However, animal studies typically look at conventional measures of toxicity, such as death. What animal research may fail to discover is the effects of miniscule amounts on endocrine systems. How small is “miniscule”? Imagine a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool! To make things worse, endocrine disruptors apparently are most damaging before birth.
POPs are hundreds of manmade substances that have wonderful uses. Unfortunately, they also have frightening effects on people and other life. One group of POPs has hydrogen atoms replaced by fluorine—PFCs. They are used in firefighting foam and making fabric stain resistant.
The concerning article focused on young men near Padua, Italy, who grew up in area heavily contaminated with PFCs. Men from a nearby location had not been exposed, and served as normal controls. The men with high levels of PFCs had shorter penises and smaller testicles and the quality of their semen was inferior.
What is most interesting is that the scientists looked at the effect of the PFC on testosterone (T) levels in these young men. The higher the PFC, the higher the T. But, you might think, doesn’t T cause men to become more masculine? Shouldn’t the opposite be the case—the higher the T, the bigger a man’s privates? That would make sense, however what happens is a bit more complicated. The shape of the PFC is similar to testosterone, so it blocks the action of the true hormone. The guy’s body tries to compensate by making more T, but its effect is blunted by the blocking action of the PFC. The exposed men had inferior semen, including more abnormal and non-swimming sperm.
A review of 244 studies found a distinct decrease in the number and quality of sperm over the years. I think that a little skepticism is wise before interpreting those findings, however. Normal men don’t usually get a sperm count done; some of the counts were probably done for couples with fertility problems. The sperm counts were done in different countries in different populations of men so they may not be comparable. Furthermore, the studies don’t point to a cause for the problem, although British observations on dogs may help us understand the cause. The results of 244 human studies are concerning. Overall, between 1973 and 2011 the average sperm count dropped from 93 million per milliliter to just 66 million.
A study of guide dogs for the blind in England mirrors what is happening to men. The studs’ sperm quality, motility and number declined from 1988 to 2014. The veterinary scientists tested tissue and semen levels for two POPs— phthalates and polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs). These chemicals have been shown to affect male fertility, and were found at significant levels. They also tested the dogs’ food, finding harmful levels of these contaminants.
Atrazine, one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals, is a POP and strong endocrine disruptor. In the USA about 70 million pounds are applied to crops yearly. It has been banned in the European Union, but has been found in many water supplies in the USA. Although it affects reproduction in both males and females, Professor Tyrone Hayes found it can turn male amphibians into females. In fact, Dr. Hayes found that atrazine causes demasculinzation and feminization of male gonads in species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
Like it or not, we live in a sea of manmade chemicals. They were synthesized to improve our lives, but unfortunately, they are harming us and other living beings. This is not a good way to limit population growth!