plastics and environmental toxins

Plastics and environmental toxins and their effects on fertility is probably another one of those areas where men aren’t too sure whether it’s really a thing or not. However, it is something that is getting more and more attention through the media with greater levels of concern.

Should you be worried and is it time to ditch the plastic water bottle?

Plastics and other environmental toxins are an everyday part of our lives. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to avoid them. Hundreds of thousands of new chemicals and products, if not millions have been introduced into our lives since the first ever synthetic plastic was created in 1907 (bakelite).

It is estimated that we now produce around 380 million tonnes of plastic each year.

What are these plastics and environmental toxins?

Plastics are a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials made from polymers. There are many naturally occurring polymers in our environment, but it is the manmade (synthetic) ones that are of most concern.

However, we’re not just talking about plastics here, there are a wide range of chemicals and environmental toxins that we’re regularly exposed to that all have a deleterious effect on sperm health.

Some common examples (without their long chemical name) include:

  • BPA
  • Phthalates
  • PU
  • PE
  • PP
  • Polycarbonate
  • Pesticides
  • Parabens
  • PCB
  • Triclosan
  • DDT

Many of these chemicals don’t break down, are a common part of our life and can replicate the actions of hormones once they enter the body.

How do these chemicals get into us

They really are everywhere. They’re used to wrap our food, they infiltrate our agricultural practices through insecticides, and they make their way into our beauty and cleaning products. Even our clothes contain them. These chemicals possess the ability to enter our bodies through various routes, be it ingestion, inhalation, or absorption.

However, it’s not just about what you’re doing right now, these chemicals are passed on to unborn children through the mother during pregnancy or post-partum through breast milk. Studies have found these chemicals in high quantities within the umbilical cord blood of infants, and it could be this mechanism that is causing the fertility crisis we’re now seeing amongst men.

What happens once they’re in the body?

Once these chemicals have made it into our body, they have a subtle, but significant impact on our body. Often referred to as endocrine disruptors these chemicals can significantly interfere with the physiology of our body through the endocrine system.

The endocrine system is the system within the body that regulates our hormones through our glands and circulatory system. Quite simply, there isn’t a single part of you that doesn’t need the input of your endocrine system.

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, hormones play an incredibly important role in male reproductive health and our systems are finely tuned in order to produce optimal quality sperm. Any change in this system can have a significant impact.

Many of the chemicals used in the production of plastics and other materials have a very similar molecular structure to oestrogen and are therefore referred to as xenoestrogens or endocrine disruptors. As a result of their close resemblance to oestrogen, they are able to bind to oestrogen receptors within the body changing the physiological response within the endocrine system which is tricked into believing there is more oestrogen than there actually is.

Scientists initially thought the presence of these xenoestrogens created an increase in oestrogen exposure to the foetus or newborn. However, it was discovered that the volume you would need to create this wasn’t feasible for their theory. Further research seems to have identified the true mechanism by which fertility is affected.

The exposure of male foetuses to xenoestrogens in utero seems to reduce the number of Sertoli cells in the developing testes. The Sertoli cells are essential for the formation of the testes and for spermatogenesis. A reduction in Sertoli cell numbers will directly impact testicular development and spermatogenesis later in life as the sperm count is dependent on the number of Sertoli cells available. A lower number of Sertoli cells is also leading to further hormonal imbalance as less inhibin, a hormone from these cells, is produced. Furthermore, as a consequence of compromised Sertoli cells, the quality of the sperm that are produced is also compromised.

The knock-on effect of this seemingly minute change is actually pretty huge. The reduction in Sertoli cells goes on to create an imbalance between testosterone and oestrogen within the body which can have profound effects on a man’s fertility and his ongoing health.

These endocrine disruptors have been a constant in our lives for many decades now and in fact our reliance on them is increasing at an alarming rate.

Over these decades we’ve seen a steady increase in:

  • Testicular cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Congenital abnormalities including
    • hypospadias (birth defect affecting the urethra opening on the penis)
    • cryptorchidism (only 1 testicle)
  •  Decreased sperm counts

A further compounding issue is that certain endocrine disrupting chemicals cause an increase in oxidative stress further disrupting spermatogenesis and decreasing sperm quality.

The bigger picture

Scientists are now well aware that there has been a steady decline in sperm quality and quantity over recent decades. In fact, the trend is quite alarming with some headlines claiming there could be no sperm by 2045!

There is no doubt that our lifestyles are very different to what they used to be and this is certainly likely to be a factor in the decline in sperm quality. However, the ubiquitous nature of these chemicals in our lives does raise serious questions and concerns about the impact they’re having on male fertility. With the discovery of these chemicals within umbilical cord blood it’s easy to see how this problem is potentially far bigger than just you drinking from a plastic water bottle. Ultimately, we need worldwide change moving us away from our reliance on plastics and heavy use of endocrine disrupting chemicals and pesticides, but that isn’t going to come easily or quickly. Therefore, it’s down to us as individuals to take whatever steps we can to limit our exposure to these chemicals. This would include a change in how we live and what kind of products and how much thereof we use. Hence, the release of these chemicals into the environment must drastically be reduced.

What can you do?

Whatever you can, but don’t stress about it!

Trying to avoid plastics and environmental toxins isn’t easy but there are steps you can take. What’s important is to not get too obsessive or stressed about it. You could certainly take this to an extreme and attempt to get rid of all plastics and chemicals in your life, but that is only likely to add to your stress when you already have a lot to be thinking about.

Simple steps could include:

  • Get a non-plastic / non-chemical lined reusable water bottle and / or coffee cup
  • Avoid storing foods in plastic containers or cling film, use glass jars instead
  • Consider buying foods from a plastic free shop using glass jars
  • Avoid using harsh cleaning chemicals in your home including air fresheners etc.
  • Be mindful of using any chemicals when gardening
  • Remove foods from plastic packaging wherever possible and don’t leave them in the sun
  • Consider paraben and chemical-free deodorants and self-care products
  • Consider natural fibres for clothing where possible (bamboo pants are great)

This is just a start in terms of suggestions and it’s fair to say that there are so many more alternatives out there to help people make better choices about their plastics exposure. Do spend some time researching these alternatives and changing whatever you can easily.

You’re never going to be able to completely eliminate plastics and endocrine disrupting chemicals from your life but doing whatever you can comfortably and without adding further stress is well worth considering.

Research reviewed

Henkel R (2018); Environmental Contamination and Testicular Function. In: Sikka SC, Hellstrom WJG (eds.) Handbook of Bioenvironmental Toxicology: Men’s Reproductive & Sexual Health. Elsevier Inc., pp. 191-208

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