There has been increasing concerns over the declining fertility rate. In a book by epidemiologist Shanna Swan, Countdown, Swan has presented a raft of data that indicates the plunging rate of sperm count in men from the Western world. Her research has worryingly revealed that the sperm count of men in the west has dropped by over 50% in just under 40 years.
If the data is correct, men could have little or no reproductive capacity from 2060 onwards. While these revelations are alarming, it is backed by a growing body of evidence that indicates that this declining productivity abnormality is not just in humans but in wildlife worldwide.
Will these trends continue? And if so, could it lead to our eventual extinction?
One of the correlations identified by Swan is that there is a connection between the chemicals that we are surrounded by in our daily lives and the declining sperm count.
This clearly indicates that authorities need to better regulate such everyday chemicals in order to protect our reproductive capacities and those of the creatures with which we share our environment.
In recent years, researchers have pinpointed the foetal stage of human development, before any lifestyle factors come into play, as a decisive moment for men’s reproductive health. During the “programming window” for foetal masculinisation (which is when the foetus develops male characteristics), disruptions in hormone signalling can have a lasting impact on male reproductive capabilities into adulthood. This was originally proven in animal studies, but there is now growing support from human studies.
This hormonal interference is caused by chemicals in our everyday products, which have the capacity to either act like our hormones or to prevent them from functioning properly at key stages in our development.
We call these “endocrine-disrupting chemicals”, and we are exposed to them through what we eat and drink, the air we breathe, and the products we put on our skin. They are sometimes called “everywhere chemicals” because they are very difficult to avoid in modern life.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are passed to the foetus by the mother, whose exposure to the chemicals during her pregnancy will determine the degree to which the foetus experiences hormonal interference. That means that present-day sperm count data speaks not to the chemical environment today, but to the environment, as it was when those men were still in the womb. That environment is undoubtedly becoming more and more polluted.
It is not just specific chemicals causing the disruption. Rather, it is different types of everyday chemicals, found in everything from washing up liquids to pesticides, additives and plastics that all contribute to disrupting the normal functioning of our hormones. If chemicals are to blame for declining sperm counts in humans, you would expect the animals that share our chemical environments to be affected too. And so they are: a recent study found that pet dogs are suffering the same decline in sperm counts for the same reasons as we are.
This means that it is not just a case of regulating one specific chemical but a complete overhaul in what we add to our products.
In the United Kingdom, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently building a chemicals strategy that could address these issues. The European Union, meanwhile, is changing chemical regulations to prevent banned substances from being replaced with other harmful ones.
However, is this enough?
As stakeholders on our planet and the overall health of the collective, we all have a role to play. It is increased public pressure that would demand stronger regulatory interventions. As the consumer, we have to collectively demand better based on making informed choices and becoming aware.
*This article is based on an article that has appeared in the The Conversation.