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The Environment and Fertility: What's Harmful for Sperm?

We know that pollution is bad for our environment and our planet – but it could be harming your sperm health too. With sperm count and health declining globally over the last 50 years, could the increasing amount of toxins in our homes and our atmosphere be behind this fertility crisis? Let’s discuss the environment and fertility.

 

Decreasing sperm health and count

In 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, another global health crisis entered the chat. Dr Shanna H. Swan released her book, “Countdown: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race”. Whilst the title may be lengthy, it got her point across pretty clearly – we are in the midst of a worryingly steep decline of fertility at a global level – and sperm health is the biggest victim.

The book’s release sparked a viral conversation that briefly put male fertility on the map. Everyone from Erin Brokovich to Greta Thunberg were raising their voices about the shocking impact pollution is having on men’s reproductive health. 2 years later and experts on Channel 4’s Celebrity Save Our Sperm, told shocked participants Russel Kane and Ollie Locke that chemicals in plastic, air pollution and toxins from habits like smoking could all be contributing to their poor sperm health.

 

How do we know sperm count and health is decreasing?

Whilst the information about declining male fertility is finally getting spoken about in the mainstream – the truth is we have known about this for decades. A 1992 Danish medical review highlighted the decline in sperm quality between 1940 and 1990. They reported a 50% decrease in average sperm counts during this time.

Since then, there have been more direct studies into whether or not sperm count and quality were decreasing in the general male population – and the evidence is pretty clear. A large meta-study reviewing data from research all over the world found that sperm count in particular is definitely on a downward spiral. The study indicated that sperm counts decreased by up to 60% between 1973 and 2011. That’s around a 1% decrease per year, so now, more than a decade later – the results could be even more shocking.

But it’s not just sperm count that is taking a nosedive. There are worrying signs that modern life is having a negative impact on the whole spectrum of men’s health – from decreasing testosterone levels to increasing rates of erectile dysfunction and even a rise in cases of testicular cancer.

 

The Environment and Sperm Health

So, why are things looking so bad for sperm health right now? There are many contributing factors to the decline in sperm count and health but one of the biggest ones is the environmental crisis we are currently in. It’s no secret that the amount of pollution on our planet has increased dramatically over the last few years – and with it the amount of toxins in both our homes and our atmosphere.

Toxic chemicals can be harmful to our health in many ways – and fertility is a big one. This is partly because many of these chemicals are known as endocrine disruptors, which directly impact the hormonal balance in our bodies. Here we’ll take a look at some of the most well researched environmental toxins and how they impact sperm health.

Phthalates

The most commonly used phthalates are Diethyl phthalate (DEHP) and di-N-butyl phthalate (DBP), which are used in lots of plastic products to improve their flexibility and durability. However, because of their negative impact on health in general, the European Union, Canada and the USA gradually replace phthalates in many products. Clinical studies have shown that DEHP exposure (among other phthalates) is associated with decreased sperm motility, increased sperm DNA damage and sperm apoptosis, and reduced serum estradiol and testosterone.

In a study from 2017, decreasing phthalate exposure was associated with some recovery of semen and hormone levels, but not all values improved. If you are trying to conceive or simply want to protect your fertility, we would definitely recommend avoiding products with Phthalates in them.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Bisphenol A (BPA) is used in the manufacture of some hard, clear plastics such as water bottles and food containers and in the lining of food cans. The chemicals are often released when these items are warmed up – for example if a food container is heated in the microwave.

BPAs can interfere with the hormonal balance exhibiting estrogen-mimicking, hormone-like properties, which has a negative impact on sperm quality in animal studies. Research has indicated that men with high BPA levels are 3-4 times more likely to have poor quality sperm. The study seemed to show that both sperm concentration and count were lowered the more BPA the subject had in their system. A separate study reported that during the IVF process, men with the highest BLA levels were 30-46% more likely to produce lower-quality embryos.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

PCBs are a group of man made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons and were previously used in the production of electrical equipment.

The use of PCBs has been banned since 1979, but because they are highly resistant to degradation, they remain an environmental problem and are contaminating our food, waterways and atmosphere.

PCB accumulates in fatty tissue in the body, which is why people with a higher BMI accumulate PCBs significantly more when compared with lean individuals.

We’re lacking much data on the impact of PCBs on human male fertility, but in animal studies, PCBs exposure causes an increasing number of wrong-shaped sperm cells (poor sperm morphology) and impaired testosterone levels.

Pesticides

A pesticide is in general a chemical or biological agent used to protect plants by killing fungal and animal pests. We can inject pesticides when we eat foods that have been treated with the chemicals during the farming process.

In a review from 2014, it was found that some pesticides have the potential to cause direct toxicity to male hormones and a negative effect on how sperm swim (motility) and are shaped (morphology). It’s thought that this could happen due to an impact on testosterone levels and an increase in oxidative stress. The best way to avoid pesticides is to eat organic fruit and vegetables. This can be pretty expensive, but it’s worth it if you are keen to protect your fertility! If you want to find a more cost effective way to reduce your pesticide consumption, check out the Environmental Working Group’s seasonal Dirty Dozen list. This lists the 12 worst offenders when it comes to foods prone to pesticides.

There are of course many other factors aside from pollution and toxins that could be impacting our sperm health – from a lack of nutrient dense sperm superfoods to bad health habits such as smoking. But the relationship between the environment and fertility is evident, and it’s not always a sperm-friendly one. You can combat this by spending more time in nature, reducing the amount of plastics in your home and eating organic where you can.

If you’d like to know more about your sperm health, our at-home male fertility test can give you the answers you need, fast.

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