In an era where books (and then television shows) like The Handmaid’s Tale and other dystopian stories are freaking people out with their stark believability, maybe it’s not surprising that these studies caught my eye – and totally freaked me out. After all, who can really say what will be the consequences of our consumerism, drive-thru diets, and mass pollution of our land and sea?
I mean, that is what led to the mass infertility in The Handmaid’s Tale. These days, it seems to be more likely with every passing moment that Margaret Atwood’s prediction could hit pretty close to the mark.
Which brings me to this: sperm counts in Western men have halved in the past 40 years. HALVED. These results were published in Human Reproduction Update, and are based upon data over 38 years, from 1973-2011. During those years, the study reports that the average Western male has experienced a 52% decline in sperm concentration and a 59% decline in total sperm count.
THAT IS A LOT. It’s so much, in fact, that I went through a quick two stage process of acceptance. At first, I found it hard to believe at all. And then, I found it hard to understand how I hadn’t heard about this public health crisis before now!
The reason, it seems, is that very little research has been done into the potential underlying causes of the drop, since the data itself has only recently been accepted as valid.
While some previous studies have been criticized for certain methods, such as choosing subjects based on whether they were seeking help for infertility issues, this latest scientific inquiry has taken care to avoid those issues. The researchers, out of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, examined and analyzed thousands of primary studies and then did a meta-analysis of 185 studies out of this grouping. The data included almost 43,000 men who gave samples between 1973-2011 from 50 different countries and took into account fertility status, age, ejaculation abstinence time, semen collection method, sperm count method, and geographic location.
Which is to say, this information is real and we have a problem.
The study didn’t dig into any potential reasons for the marked decline, though its authors and other scientists from around the world have started formulating theories. Possibilities include body weight, lack of physical fitness, smoking, and exposure to chemicals, especially those known as endocrine disruptors.
Dr. Hagai Levine, the lead researcher out of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explains that “we are exposed to many chemicals we’ve never been exposed to before,” and that previous studies (including his own) show that these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can harm the development of the male reproductive system even in utero. EDCs include pesticides, lead, and fire retardants, among other things.
Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, a not-for-profit advocacy group, is inclined to blame chemical exposure, as well. Since sperm is manufactured daily in men’s bodies, it makes sense that recent exposures to environmental chemicals would have an effect on sperm count. It could also serve as a regional indicator of contamination levels and the overall health of men.
Some who remain skeptical like to point out that even though many factors were accounted for by the study, there remain plenty of important questions about the participants that were not asked – at least if we want to understand the why.
Kathryn St. John, a senior director of strategic communications for the American Chemistry Council, thinks that we need more information: “The original studies did not account for fundamental and important information about lifestyles and health status of participants, so such factors cannot be accounted for in the overall results.”
Others suggest that environmental factors like temperature could play a role, and that climate change might be at least partially to blame for the sharp declineThe bottom line seems to be that more research is needed. Although this new publication seems to prove that there is a problem, it simply didn’t focus on the underlying causes or how to address them, though Levine does think that some conclusions can be drawn:
“The impact of the modern environment on health of populations and individuals is clearly huge, but remains largely unknown. Sperm count has previously been plausibly associated with environmental and lifestyle influences, including prenatal chemical exposure, adult pesticide exposure, smoking, stress and obesity. Every man can reduce exposure to chemicals, avoid smoking, keep balanced diet and weight and reduce stress.”
So there you go, guys. If you hope to have children one day, it’s time to take a serious look at your choices and how they’ll impact the future. The fate of the human race could soon be at stake, so don’t mess it up!
h/t: The Guardian
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