Why You Should Care About Sperm
In the 1970s, Danish scientist Niels Skakkebaek began his career researching testicular cancer and genital malformations in young Danish boys. The simultaneous discoveries that at least 7 percent of the boys had one or both testicles undescended as well as the overall decline in quality of Danish adult male semen led him to delve deeper into the waning reproductive health of Danish men at first, and then eventually, men all over the world. Here, I review an article from the January 1996 issue of New Yorker entitled “Silent Sperm,” which details the unraveling of the mystery of rapidly declining sperm counts around the world.
Although sperm counts had been regularly tracked and recorded since at least the 30s, if not earlier, very little analysis of the numbers had been undertaken until Skakkebaek began noticing this trend of declining counts. He started to delve further into the problem, first with a study on what he assumed would be “healthy” test subjects: men who had worked in nonhazardous office jobs and who generally avoided interaction with harmful industrial chemicals. Contrary to his expectations, these men also revealed low quality sperm. The commonly accepted standard for a “healthy man” at the time was 100 million sperm per milliliter, with no more than 20 percent of them immobile and no more than 40 percent deformed (for example, two heads, misshapen, etc). Skakkebaek’s study revealed that 84 percent of these “normal” men had a sperm count and quality much lower than these standards.
Around the same time (1974), two physicians at the University of Iowa undertook their own study on men who were about to obtain vasectomies—the majority of which had already fathered two or more children and ought to have demonstrated a higher than average sperm count. In the 386 fertile men they examined, the average sperm concentration was only 48 million per milliliter—far lower than what were considered the minimum standards for a healthy, fertile man at the time. The two physicians then looked at the records of men who had come to the hospital in the 1950s for infertility issues and found that a large proportion of these had higher sperm counts than those seeking vasectomies in the 1970s.
This disturbing report led to separate studies being conducted in Philadelphia and Houston, which also found declining sperm counts and quality. Despite the abundance of results from replicated studies that confirmed the Danes’ initial findings, there were well-respected experts in the field who didn’t fully buy in at first, citing analytical errors as a cause for the so-called decline. For whatever reason, the debate dropped out of the mainstream for over a decade until the 1990s, when Skakkebaek and his colleagues decided to do a meta-analysis of all published studies of sperm counts around the world, going back as far as 1938. While the average sperm count ended up varying from country to country, the clear trend was toward lower sperm counts in the present. This re-enlivened the discourse and led to more shocking discoveries in other countries. Reproductive biologist, Pierre Jouannet, at the Center for the Study and Conservation of Eggs and Sperm in France found an average decline of two percent per year from 1973 to 1992, leading Jouannet to conclude that “if the decline were to continue at the same rate, it will take seventy or eighty years before it goes to zero.”
With the trend of a declining sperm count now well-established, scientists began to turn toward the question of cause. Of the various and many hypothetical causes, the most commonly cited is estrogen-like synthetic chemicals that have become almost ubiquitous in our time. Such chemicals can be found in meat and dairy food products, feminine cosmetic and hygiene products, plastics, pesticides and everyday household items. Skakkebaek believes the worst are phytoestrogens such as those used to treat livestock, and which are also found in baby formulas containing powdered milk. He believes these phytoestrogens affect the baby’s endocrine system either in the womb, or shortly after birth—the most crucial times in reproductive development.
Along the same lines, there was a study conducted on pregnant rats exposed to DES (a synthetic estrogen that was widely prescribed to pregnant mothers from the 1940s to the 1970s for the prevention of miscarriage) and other synthetic estrogens, which revealed that sperm production in the rat offspring was reduced anywhere from 5 to 15 percent lower than the normal. Similarly, more and more species of animals affected by the prevalence of phytoestrogens in their habitats are demonstrating abnormal genitalia (such as hermaphroditism) and social behavior, such as the “lesbian” Western Gulls which have begun nesting together rather than with males, who have apparently “lost interest”. Furthermore, according to the article, it is well known that men who work directly with estrogen tend to become feminized, developing breasts over time and, in some cases, going through a male version of menopause.
It seems highly likely that we are headed down a collision course with the extinction of our species and we do not know how to stop the engine, nor do we know precisely how or why we’re moving. While all of the information I’ve read does point toward the possibility that the declining trend could be reversed if conditions were returned back to what they were prior to the start of this decline, I really don’t think that we, as a capitalistic, globalized society, could now make the changes required in our lifestyles and our industrial and consumer practices.
One article I found cited a UCSF study, where 99% of the pregnant women participating in a urine test showed traces of numerous harmful chemicals known to cause birth defects. Some of the chemicals found in the urine have been banned since the 70s, others included highly toxic pesticides such as DDT and the estrogenic phenol chemicals mentioned above, such as BPA (Science Daily, 2011). Another article discussed a recent study by Kaiser Permanente’s research division, which showed the direct correlation between high levels of BPA and lower sperm counts. According to this study, “Men exposed to BPA at work and who showed detectable urine BPA had more than three times the risk of lower sperm concentration and vitality than men with no detectable urine BPA (…) and more than four times the risk of lower sperm count and more than twice the risk of lower sperm motility (MSNBC, 2010).
The amount of evidence that these man-made chemicals are slowly killing us is overwhelming. But it seems as though the red flag has been waived so frequently about the harmfulness of various foods, common household items, etc, people have succumbed to the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome and have failed to react to the impending threat. Plastic is still present in nearly every aspect of our existence. “Green” household products were trendy for a time, but I’ve noticed that ads for such products are far less prevalent than the ads for Clorox and Johnson and Johnson branded products—many of which contain the aforementioned chemicals. And the meat industry will never give up its eternal quest to maximize profits and minimize quality, even if it means switching from rBST to other, lesser-known hormone treatments. But if we know anything about mankind, it’s that this is to be expected. We don’t learn our lesson until it’s too late. And someday, generations from now, when men have become so feminized and/or otherwise rendered incapable of siring offspring, nature will finally have her last laugh.