Research studies over the past 50 years reported that a decline in male fertility cannot be explained by genetic causes, obesity, lifestyle changes, or diet alone. Humans have been incrementally exposed to elements that have also in the past few decades contributed dramatically to the decline in male fertility. 1 out of 8 couples in the US is struggling with infertility. And reproductive specialists are finding themselves in an increasingly helpless position.
Patients themselves are realizing that environmental toxicity is turning out to be one of the main reasons for male infertility. Our laptops, cellphones, the various components of plastics, and the chemicals are adding to it.
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We are surrounded by synthetic chemicals. Over 80,00 chemicals are registered with the US National Toxicology Program and around 2,000 get added each year, and a significant number of them are toxins. In the US, many such chemicals are still in use at permissible levels and are known to cause reproductive harm. In contrast, the REACH regulations of the EU are more restrictive and comprehensive.
Defining Male Infertility And Pinning Down The Causes
Whatever the cause, male fertility reduction means that a couple cannot get pregnant even after a year of regular intercourse. It was generally up to the doctor to arrive at a possible cause and prescribe the cure.
For males, the basis to evaluate fertility was through semen analysis. Both sperm concentration that determines the number of sperm in a given quantity of semen, and sperm count, which is the total number of sperm produced, are the normal measures. Now, they are no longer the sole predictors of male fertility. Specialists now rely on the total motile sperm count. The method isolates and evaluates the sperm cells that can move and swim.
Male fertility is affected by several causes. Hormonal imbalances, genetic diseases, and obesity have traditionally been identified as the causes affecting fertility. Conventional treatment methods can bring positive results in such cases. But from the last decade of the 20th century, a worrying trend was noticed by researchers. Despite accounting for the known causes of male fertility, there was a marked drop in the rate of fertility that could not be attributed to the above causes.
As far back as 1992, a 50% drop in the sperm count was found in men when compared to studies over the last 6 decades. These numbers were confirmed by parallel studies. A study as recent as 2017 showed that between 1973 and 2011, there has been a startling decline of 50% to 60% in male fertility across the world.
The study relied on the total count or sperm concentration. Researchers decided instead to concentrate on the more accurate and powerful motile count method. In the study conducted in 2019, they discovered that men having normal motile count had gone down by around 10% in a decade.
The numbers are clear, and the research results have been consistent. When compared with the past, men are now producing fewer sperm, and the quality of it has been found to be relatively poor. Researchers were stumped as to the reason for the unexplained drop in count and quality.
Male Fertility And Environmental Toxicity
Scientists have been aware after studying animals that environmental factors like toxicity were negatively influencing their hormonal balance and affecting reproduction capability. The studies on humans were not possible as, for obvious reasons, they could not be exposed to toxic elements to study their influence.
As scientists noticed this downward drift in male fertility, they looked outwards to environmental factors that could be causing the decline. But the approach had one flaw because it did not pin down the exact reasons for the decline. But there has been a marked success in identifying the general causes that are causing such an alarming trend.
A possible culprit has been identified to be endocrine disruptors. These molecules imitate the natural hormones of the body and disrupt the fragile hormone balance that aids in reproduction. Substances such as phthalates, or plasticizers, pesticides, heavy metals, herbicides, synthetic materials, and toxic gases act as endocrine disruptors.
Phthalates or plasticizers are present in an overwhelming variety of plastics, and that is something that we are drowning in. Exposure to them has been directly linked to a negative impact on semen health and testosterone levels. Other factors that directly affect male fertility are pesticides and herbicides, traces of which are found in almost every foodstuff we consume. Especially dangerous are the ones that comprise phosphorus and affect male fertility.
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The drastic spike in air pollution in cities and even towns have subjected residents to toxic particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and a host of other compounds that are strongly suspected of the abnormal drop in sperm quality.
Another common factor is exposure to radioactive materials, however small the dose might be. Everyday products like our cellphone, laptop, modems have been proven to affect sperm count.
Then there are the heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium that also enter our body through the food chain, and cosmetics. Compounds that disrupt the endocrine in our body also cause male infertility and also affect our emotional and physical health. And the cure is expensive.
Need For More Stringent Measures For Testing
While the American Chemistry Council has talked about the need for ‘risk-based protection’, to benefit the environment and public health, it remains obvious that their concerns are mere hogwash, and winning in the marketplace is all that matters to them.
Chemicals in the US continue to follow minimal testing rules and are yanked from the shelves only when definite harm is established.
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Dr. Niels Skakkebaek, a lead academic on pioneering research on male infertility has said that the decline should wake us up. As a physician, he says that he can only point to the worrisome trend though he cannot identify the causes, and more research is needed to get things right.