Do we need to be worried about plastics and sperm health? Well, potentially. We all know that we are dealing with an environmental crisis and plastics are one of the worst culprits when it comes to damaging our climate. 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year and ultimately end up in our landfills and waterways. This is obviously bad news for the planet – but could it be bad news for our fertility?
Sperm count in decline
Over the last couple of years, talk of declining sperm count has been rife in the media – however, it’s definitely not the first time we are hearing about it. Back in the 1990s, a Danish study reported that between 1940 and 1990 average sperm count declined by 50%. This has been backed up by a more recent study that noted once again, that over a roughly fifty-year period (this time 1973 to 2011) sperm count decreased by 50%-60%. That’s around a 1% decrease each year.
One doctor involved in this research, Dr Shanna Swan, who is a professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and the author of Count Down – a book all about the worrying decline of both male and female fertility. She believes that by 2045, the majority of couples will have to use assisted fertility, such as IVF or ICSI, to have a baby. She also believes that plastics could be playing a huge role in the decline in male fertility.
Sperm health and plastics
Look, holding a plastic bottle once in a while is not going to render you infertile, but Dr Shanna Swan has a point. Here we’ll try to explain a bit about how consistent exposure to plastics could impact your sperm health.
First, let’s talk about endocrine disruptors
To understand how plastics could be impacting sperm health, we first have to understand the role of endocrine disruptors – chemicals found in plastic, food, and household items, that can harm your hormone health. The endocrine system of our bodies are responsible for hormone production and regulation. Hormones play a key role in many processes in our bodies – including reproduction. The key reproductive hormones – testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone, to name a few, need to be working in balance if men and women are to have a good chance of conceiving naturally.
Endocrine disruptors do exactly what they say – they disrupt your endocrine system – meaning they mess up hormone production and balance.
They do this by mimicking your body’s natural hormones and tricking your body into thinking there are more hormones being produced than there actually are. Because your body wants to be in balance, if it thinks you have too much testosterone, for example, it will start to produce less testosterone. This is bad news for your health, and potentially your fertility because if your body isn’t in balance, which could get in the way of healthy sperm production.
Are endocrine disruptors in plastics?
Endocrine disruptors can be found in many things that we come into contact with every day – from our food to our cleaning products – and they can definitely be found in plastics.
Two of the most common endocrine disruptors linked to plastics are BPA and Phthalates.
BPAs and sperm health
Bisphenol A aka BPA is an industrial chemical used to make plastic. It can be found in many plastic products including food storage containers and plastic bottles. BPAs are most commonly released when the plastics are heated up – so putting that plastic container in the microwave to heat up your leftovers is a real danger zone.
Whilst most research in this space needs to be done some studies have noted a link between BPAs and reduced sperm quality. One study found that men with detectable levels of BPA in their urine had more than three times the risk of lowered sperm concentration and sperm vitality, more than four times the risk of lower sperm count, and more than twice the risk of lower sperm motility than those who did not. BPAs can also have a detrimental impact on female fertility.
Phthalates and sperm health
Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics more flexible. They can be found in a lot of packaging and things like cling film. They can also be found in a lot of skincare and beauty products, so your skincare routine could be damaging your health!
There have been some studies looking into the link between men’s exposure to phthalates – with mixed results. But things get really interesting (and a bit concerning) when you look at the exposure to phthalates during pregnancy.
Dr Shanna’s research indicates that the biggest impact of phthalates came in-utero. In her study, she found that male rats who were born from mothers who had been exposed to phthalates had smaller penises, which can affect fertility later in life. Another study published in Human Reproduction found sons of mothers exposed to endocrine disruptors during pregnancy – including phthalates – were twice as likely to have low semen volume and concentration compared to sons of unexposed mothers.
How can we reduce our risk of plastics impacting sperm health?
So whether you are a guy looking to protect their fertility or a pregnant mother hoping to protect the fertility of your unborn baby, making some swaps to reduce plastic exposure is not a bad idea!
There are some incredible products out there now that make avoiding plastic easier than ever. Instead of cling film, try beeswax wraps. Commit to using a glass or metal water bottle, rather than a plastic one. Invest in a stainless steel lunchbox and containers so that your food stays fresh without the risk of endocrine-disrupting chemicals making their way into your meal. Another big one is to avoid takeaways – not only are they not great from a nutritional point of view, but they often come in plastic containers that have been warmed up on the journey – a real risk for BPA exposure.
Avoiding plastics alone won’t protect your sperm health – things like having a healthy weight and quitting smoking are probably more important. However, making these swaps will definitely help protect the planet and could protect the fertility of you, and future generations, in the process. So it’s definitely worth considering when you next make a purchase – is this bit of plastic really necessary?