In recent weeks I’ve seen two disconcerting documentaries on men: “The End of Men” and “The Disappearing Male”. You might want to find them on Doc Zone. “The End of Men” chronicles how the ongoing economic crisis has eroded many traditional male jobs, first in the industrial blue collar sector and, after the recent financial crisis, the white collar sector. The second documentary chronicles how the male birth rate is falling.
Some say the former is about the “feminization of work” outside the home, and the latter is about the “feminization of reproduction.” While overcoming stereotypes of the male as the lone sacrificial breadwinner will have some positive outcomes, there is no upside for any of us in the decline of male reproductive health.
THE VERY BAD NEWS
Sperm counts are dropping suddenly and dramatically; men born in recent decades have about one-half the sperm count of their fathers. While seven of ten sperm donors used to give healthy samples, only three in ten do now. The volume, motility and morphology of sperm have all declined, and with this has come increased male infertility. Birth defects in the male genitalia, such as shrunken testes and penises, and testicular cancer have increased.
This unsettling change is widespread; the male birth rate is falling in 20 industrial countries. And we pretty much know why this is happening. The First Nations community near Sarnia, Ontario experienced a sudden, marked drop in male births since the late 1990s, and the Sarnia area is where 40% of Canada’s petrochemical industry operates.
THE CHEMICAL REVOLUTION
When I was in elementary school in Regina sixty years ago, there were few industrial chemicals going into the biosphere. Since then nearly 90,000 chemicals have been created, in everything from toys to televisions, and pesticides to plastics. We store our food in plastic containers, we eat food from cans lined with plastic, and our babies suck milk from plastic bottles. Chemicals are in our clothing, our bedding as well as out computers and video games. Chemicals have not only become occupational and environmental hazards; it’s estimated that 1,000 chemicals can now be found in household products.
These chemicals mainly come from the petrochemical industry; they are part of our growing dependency on fossil fuels. What is most striking and unsettling is that the great majority of them, about 85%, were never tested for environmental-health effects before being allowed on the market. Experiments which should have been conducted on these chemicals are instead being done on us and other creatures. And the findings are not encouraging.
FROM ALLIGATORS TO HUMANS
We typically first find the toxic effects of industrial inventions in other species. Wildlife biologists found that alligators living in swamps contaminated by DDT and other pesticides had abnormal sex organs and a greatly reduced rate of reproduction. The phrase “feminization of alligators” was coined. Now biologists continually find fish populations exposed to certain chemicals have become disproportionately female.
A similar thing is happening to humans. The human placenta doesn’t screen for some chemicals which harm embryo development. Some chemicals affect the fetus at seven weeks, when gender starts to form. Slowly scientists came to realize that some of the synthetic chemicals associated with the convenience of the consumer society were blocking testosterone development. Pesticides, for example, altered the development of testes in male fetuses. Now we know that some of these chemicals behave like estrogen and disrupt the development of the endocrine system; they are endocrine-disrupters. The result is permanent alteration of male reproductive health. The incidence of undescended testis has increased, as has male infertility and testicular cancer. Some of these chemicals are also now suspect in the rise of asthma and obesity.
THE KNOWN CULPRITS
Two kinds of chemicals used in a wide range of products are the most suspect: the soft plastics made of phthalates and the hard ones made of Bisphenol-A (BPA). The phthalates gained widespread use in the production of soft cuddly baby toys, food packaging and many cosmetics. They are widely used in baby lotions, powders and shampoos. BPA is found in everything from plastic bottles to tin cans liners to DVDs. One-half century after first being put on the market, worldwide annual production remains about 8 billion pounds.
The chemical industry predictably denies any causal relation between their products and adverse effects on environmental and reproductive health. And they have an abundance of funds from profits to create their own research to paralyze the underfunded environmental health regulatory system. In this regards they operate much like the tobacco, pharmaceutical and nuclear industries; and the oil industry in its denial of the role of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in climate change. Research methodologies can be skewed: while few or no studies funded by industry find adverse effects, many of the independent ones do. I know which ones I am going to give more of my trust.
THE PARENTAL BURDEN
Parents, of course, should not have to be biochemists to be able to protect their offspring. But what happened to the regulatory system? Mainly it’s been asleep at the wheel for the last half century of chemical “progress”. Governments that see corporate-driven economic growth as the “be-all, end-all” have intentionally weakened the regulatory system. Thankfully, in 2010 the federal government finally banned the use of BPA in baby bottles. But that is not enough. What about canned food? What about food packaging? (BPA’s may be in plastics with the recycle codes 3 and 7.) And what about the absorption of phthalates through baby lotions, shampoos and powders? And the inhalation of these chemicals through off-gassing from some vinyl’s and even some shower curtains?
The Suzuki Foundation recently called for more accurate labeling and an outright ban on several chemicals its researchers found in four of five of “12,550 everyday cosmetic products, including shampoo, toothpaste, lipstick and skin cleanser.” Besides many of the endocrine disrupters so harmful to natural reproduction, these included coal-tar dyes, formaldehyde and “parfum” fragrances used widely in personal care products. Many are known neurotoxins and carcinogens. Go to: http://www.davidsuzuki.org
When the “free market” starts to play Russian roulette with environmental and reproductive health we are engaging in an experiment of evolutionary proportions. And remember that so-called “macho men” who may pride themselves on having the levels of testosterone required to “get the job done” – whether it is mining a toxic resource, constructing a skyscraper or going to war for the empire – are also being affected by these chemicals. We all are! And this is no way to go about creating a gentler, more compassionate, sustainable society.
Next time I’ll look at what those calling for a nuclear waste ban are up against.