A recent article by GQ writer Daniel Noah Nalpern examined a troubling study showing that sperm counts of men in the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have fallen by more than 50% over the last 40 years — basically rendering the current generation of men half as fertile as the generation of men who preceded us. If this trend of lower sperm count continues, the world could well be full of infertile men by 2060.
The good news? At least there’s a clear cause: chemicals found in plastics. The bad news? These chemicals are pretty much in everything we ingest — even in food and sex toys.
Nalpern writes that the study “was a meta-analysis by a team of epidemiologists, clinicians and researchers that culled data from 185 studies, which examined semen from almost 43,000 men.” The study showed sperm counts reduced from “99 million sperm per milliliter of semen in 1973 to 47 million per milliliter in 2011” with the trend accelerating in later years.
The study’s lead author, Hagai Levine, confirmed that men are producing less semen and semen with fewer sperm cells.
Lower sperm count has also coincided with declining testosterone levels in men and a shorter anogenital distance (AGD) — that is, the distance between men’s anuses and their genitals. Whether combined or alone, these are typically indicators for other health issues in men such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and decreased penis size.
When Nalpern interviewed other experts in human reproduction, they largely agreed that men become infertile while still developing in the womb because of mothers ingesting “endocrine disruptors,” a fancy biological word for anything that affects hormones. These disruptors also affect estrogen and testosterone, the hormones associated with sexual development.
The main source of endocrine disruptors affecting male fertility come from plastics. Apparently the same chemicals that soften and harden plastics also result in infertile men. One study showed the higher amounts of plastics-related endochrine disruptors a woman had in her urine, the greater likelihood her son would have low sperm counts, low testosterone and a low AGD.
What’s worse, these plastic-related chemicals are in pretty much everything we eat, drink and use on a daily basis: water bottles, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, fruits, yogurts, lube and sex toys. Even if you stop using these products now, they can still alter your genetic code so that your offspring could have a lower sperm count.
Basically, the only way to reverse this trend would be for all of society to stop using plastics, but that’s probably not going to happen seeing as big plastics manufacturers refute any studies suggesting their products are harmful, Nalpern says.
If infertile men become unable to impregnate women — kind of like what happens in the 2006 sci-fi drama Children of Men — we’re screwed as a species. Our only hope, Nalpern concludes, is reproductive technology that would allow scientists to make artificial sperm out of embryonic stem cells, a costly procedure that would ensure that only the rich have children.