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Human fertility levels are falling at an alarming rate that cannot be explained by lifestyle factors alone, there must be another cause. Strong evidence is emerging about the impact of EDCs on human fertility and the worrying speed of change.


The effect on female fertility

The EDCs thought to have the greatest impact of female fertility are Bisphenol A, Phthalates, and PBDEs. They are used in everyday plastics, personal care products, and used as flame retardants respectively.

Early puberty

Exposure to EDCs even at low levels is thought to be a factor in the increase in early puberty in females which cannot be explained by other factors alone.

In later life this early risk seems to accumulate into lower fertility rates and higher risk of developing breast cancer due to its hormone sensitivities in certain types.

A study at Stanford University of 64,000 women found that women being treated for infertility were 18% more likely to develop a wide range cancers.

Sperm & Egg

Fertility and conception

Exposure to EDCs has been linked with increased levels of infertility in women trying to conceive. They can mimic or interfere with healthy hormonal activities
in the female body, especially oestrogen, with the potential to wreak havoc with normal hormonal actions.

EDCs are thought to act like a switch or dial, turning the down levels of oestrogen production, altering how female hormones move around the body, how cells respond to them, and blocking their actions; the list
is long.

EDCs can also have devasting impacts on foetal development during pregnancy

The effect on male fertility

Human sperm counts have more than halved in the last 40 years. Between 1973 and 2017 sperm counts have dropped by 59% in Western countries.

Sperm concentrations are expressed as the number of sperm per millilitre, and the range is 15-200 million per ml. Professor Shanna Swan has found that sperm concentrations have fallen from an average of 99 million per ml to 47 million per ml. She highlights that it’s not just about how many, it’s also about how sperm move and their shape, and evidence shows that these have also been negatively impacted.

Why is this happening?

The abundance of plastics in our everyday is coming under increasing scrutiny, and the chemicals used to manufacture and adapt them for different uses are being regulated much more closely.

Since the 1950’s the plastics industry has grown exponentially, and for decades without regulation. This is changing, but even chemicals that are on banned lists can be substituted with so-called safer alternatives, many of which haven’t been fully analysed to see how safe they are for humans and animals to interact with. The testing process for new chemical formulations can take years to catch up with what’s permitted –
just because a chemical is approved for use doesn’t mean it’s safe.

plastic food containers

Are endocrine disruptors posing a health risk to male fertility?

For decades consensus in the health community has been that during pregnancy the placenta acts as a barrier to protect the unborn child from harm from the outside world, safely filtering what can pass from mother to unborn child. The same has been assumed about human breast milk.

But evidence is now emerging that the placenta can’t always stop harmful chemicals passing through it. Microscopic plastic particles have been identified in human placentas.

Exposure to everyday chemicals during pregnancy can have lasting, whole life effects. Drops in male fertility rates is now emerging – the volume, size, and motility (movement) of sperm have all reduced dramatically over recent decades, creating a crisis for human reproduction.

But how? The presence of endocrine disruptors passing from mother to unborn child are thought to interfere with critical stages of sexual development in gestation, by mimicking the actions of hormones and disrupting healthy development and growth patterns.

The impact of exposure to chemical disruptors, even before birth, could be damaging early childhood sexual development in boys, and in adult life reducing sperm counts and sperm health, negatively impacting on key reproductive functions.

Man smoking cigarette by window ledge

Other health risks

In a study of 13,000 men it was found that men with low sperm counts are at a higher risk of developing health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer risk, especially testicular and prostate cancer. They also had an overall higher morbidly rate.

Could other factors be contributing to changes in male fertility?

Lifestyle factors such as stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, even unsuitable underwear choices are all thought to have a negative impact on sperm health, but these tend to have a greater impact later in life, and choices can be made to positively impact fertility outcomes.

Even with these lifestyle variables, the drastic reductions seen in male fertility rates cannot be explained by these factors alone, and EDCs found in microplastics are the heart of the debate.

What is the expert saying?

Professor Shanna Swan is a world expert in human fertility, and she has gathered enough evidence over the last 20 years to leave her with no doubt that everyday chemicals are having a negative, devastating impact on human fertility, especially in men.

Are any chemical groups more harmful than others?

Phthalates are the endocrine disruptors of most concern for male fertility due to their ability to interfere with the actions of testosterone in the body. They can reduce the levels of this hormone made in the body.

High on the phthalate risk list is DEHP, identified by REACH as a substance of very high concern. It was banned in 2015, but still makes its way into many everyday products using recycled materials.

fruit in a cup

EDCs in the foodchain: an overview

The study of EDCs began more than 50 years ago when scientists first started looking at their actions on development and health. Early studies focused mostly on fish and animals, building evidence over time that EDCs can be passed through the food chain and waterways from animals to humans.

Thousands of scientific papers have since been produced, and the findings subject to rigorous scientific peer review. They all point to the same conclusion – that EDCs pose a significant risk to animal and human health, even before birth.

Technological advances make it possible to detect EDCs in human samples of urine and blood, and the body of evidence to support the claim that EDCs are harmful to our health is constantly growing.

A list of 800 chemicals has been identified as having endocrine disrupting properties, and with another 150,000 in everyday use, its highly probable the list will grow (WHO).

EDCs are ubiquitous and almost impossible to avoid. Although the most common groups have relatively short ‘lives’ that can be flushed out of our bodies quite easily, the amount we are exposed to every day presents a risk to our health. The body carries some chemicals for much longer – up to 15 years and more in some cases. They are accumulated by the body and stored in fatty tissue, creating a body burden. Read more about body burden.

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