The chemicals that can impact your sperm count and the everyday items they can be found In

In this article, we'll look at how certain chemicals can damage sperm count and quality, the everyday products they can be found in, and the lifestyle changes you can make to help minimise the effect.

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We’ve heard about microplastics and chemicals infecting the deepest depths of the oceans, our food, the air we breathe and general human health. But are chemicals also affecting sperm and fertility? In this article, we'll look at how certain chemicals can damage sperm count and quality, the everyday products they may be found in, and changes you can make to help minimise the effect.

First, a bit of context

In the last century, sperm counts across the globe have dropped significantly. A 2022 study led by Hagai Levine showed that sperm counts fell on average by 1.2% per year between 1973 to 2018, from 104 to 49 million/ml, and that this rate of decline has accelerated since the year 2000. Although the decline has been most prominent in Western countries, it has also occurred in the developing world and is therefore considered a global issue

In 2023, Shanna H Swan, a UC Berkeley epidemiologist graduate and member of Levine's research team, reported that this drop couldn’t be due to evolution alone, but also environmental factors. She argues that endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are far more detrimental to reproductive health and fertility than once thought, and that both the scientific and wider world are either overlooking the impact or perhaps simply oblivious to it.

What are EDCs?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are substances that interfere with the body's endocrine system, critical in the regulation of biological processes in the body. When the endocrine system is interfered with, hormonal regulation and balance are disrupted, sometimes leading to adverse health effects and negative reproductive outcomes.

These chemicals are found in various everyday products and can be detrimental to human health, impacting the body's developmental, reproductive, and immune systems issues.

Where are they found?

Here, we've provided a summary of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and the everyday items they can be found in.

  • Bisphenol A (also more commonly known as BPA) - Food packaging, water containers especially water bottles, dental sealants
  • Phthalates - Packaging of food and items, personal care products, industrial plastics (think garden hose), medical devices, pharmaceuticals
  • Parabens - Preservatives, food, cosmetics and toiletries (including many brands of popular shampoo), medications
  • Nonylphenol ethoxylates - Detergents, paint, pesticides, personal care products, plastics
  • Tributyltin chloride - Consumer goods and industrial products
  • Genistein - Soy derived products
  • Silver nanoparticles - Antibiotics, burn wound dressings, surgical devices
  • Perfluoroalkyl compounds - Carpets, textiles, paper
  • Triclosan - Personal care, household, industrial and veterinary products
  • Octyl phenol - Sewage, farm animals’ tissues grazed on sewage-contaminated ground
  • Microcystin-LR - Freshwater
  • Chlorotriazine herbicides - Herbicide, ground water
  • Insecticides - Fresh produce, bioaccumulation in the environment
  • Glyphosate - Herbicide
  • Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane - Pesticide
  • Vinclozolin - Fungicide used in fruit and vegetables
  • Benzopyrene - Diesel exhaust, cigarette smoke, charcoal-cooked food, cooking oil fumes, industrial waste by-products
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - Environmental pollutants from incomplete combustion of coal, petrol, oil and wood

We know that this very long list, of very confusing words can be overwhelming to go through, especially if you're worried about your fertility or you're trying to conceive. We all have busy lives, and while checking for these chemicals in the ingredients of products and goods is a smart choice, it may not be the most time-efficient or productive way to work around EDCs.

Everyday products that you have in your pantry, kitchen cabinets, bathroom and everywhere in between are likely contain some traces of EDCs. Unfortunately, environmental chemicals such as EDCs are impossible to avoid completely as they are in nearly everything around us and even in your own home. Common examples are diesel exhaust, fresh groceries, any plastic packaging.

Alternatives to EDCs

Fortunately, there are various proven ways to both lower the risk of chemical exposure and reduce your own EDC footprint. Lifestyle factors that can help include:

  • Use non-biological house cleaner and products. Baking soda, lemon and vinegar are the three main natural cleaning ingredients and combining them or using them with water can be an alternative solution to manufactured cleaners. Check out this list for some store-bought recommendations.
  • Use cast-iron saucepans (versus chemically coated non-stick variety) in your home cooking. Non-stick pans can contaminate foods, especially if the surface seal is broken after continued use.
  • Buy unwrapped, organic fruits and vegetables.
  • Consider changing to a reusable water bottle made from stainless steel or glass. Reusable bottles made with plastic can have BPA and other containments in them.
  • Never microwave foods in plastic containers – even if instructions say it’s okay. Instead, use reusable glass or ceramic containers.

EDCs have also been found to affect bottle-fed babies as they are swallowing millions of microplastic particles daily. This is partly due to the high temperatures that bottles need to be sterilised at during the process of preparing formulas. Unfortunately, there are not many solutions for alternative baby bottle products. While some families prefer to use glass bottles as alternatives, the plastic teat can still carry microplastics.

Environmental factors

Reducing exposure to EDCs also involves addressing certain environmental factors. Unfortunately, these cannot be controlled or significantly altered by most people. Here are some of the ways authorities and manufacturing companies are addressing chemical exposure:

  • Regulation and Policies - Implementing and enforcing regulations to limit the use of EDCs in consumer products and industrial processes.
  • Public Awareness - Increasing awareness about EDCs and promoting choice among consumers in the products they choose.
  • Alternative Products - Encouraging the development and use of alternative products that are free or low in EDCs, and therefore less detrimental to human health.
  • Safer Chemicals - Researching and promoting the use of safer chemicals in manufacturing processes and products.
  • Waste Management - Proper disposal and management of products containing EDCs prevent them from entering the environment.
  • Monitoring and Research - Conducting ongoing monitoring and research to identify new sources of EDCs and understand their impact on human health and the environment.
  • International Cooperation - Collaborating internationally to address the global impact of environmental chemicals, and establish common standards and regulations.

So, what are the impacts of EDCs on men's reproductive health?

There has been recent evidence linking EDCs to changes in “germ cells,” which are the precursors to sperm cells and egg cells. Disruption to “germ cells” can cause a decline in sperm count and impair sperm quality, leading to poor fertility.

They can also interfere with the production of certain sex hormones, such as testosterone and oestrogen. When these hormones are affected for any number of reasons, it can cause abnormal reproductive function. Bisphenol A (BPA) is most intimately linked to intervening with hormone receptors, causing testis defects, and affecting the production of sperm.

Additionally, EDCs can cause oxidative stress - the interference with the body’s antioxidant defence system. This can directly impact sperm function and quality and sometimes cause sperm DNA damage. If the DNA of the sperm is damaged, it can result in lower rates of fertilisation and poor embryo quality. In extreme cases, if an embryo develops following sperm DNA damage, it can lead to birth or congenital defects in newborns. Although this is rare, it is an alarming cause of EDCs that is important to bring attention to.

Other ways EDCs can impact human health

Sexual development

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) interfere with the normal hormonal signalling pathways, potentially leading to disruptions in sexual development as well as other adverse effects. Prenatal exposure to EDCs, particularly during critical periods of foetal development, can impact the development of reproductive organs, hormone production, and the timing of puberty. This can result in issues with sexual maturation and fertility, therefore minimising prenatal exposure to chemicals is crucial to a child's health.

How to minimise prenatal exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs):

  • Choose safe products 
  • Eat a healthy diet 
  • Filtered water
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol
  • Ventilate living spaces
  • Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider if you're worried

What you can do

Overall, the environmental exposure to EDCs is not something individuals can completely avoid. However, the following steps can be taken to reduce EDC footprint:

  • Choose organic - Opt for organic foods to avoid pesticides and herbicides that may contain EDCs.
  • Safe cleaning products - Use environmentally friendly and non-toxic cleaning products to reduce chemical exposure.
  • Filtered water - Drink filtered water to reduce contaminants, and consider using a water filter at home.
  • Avoid plastics - Minimise the use of plastic products, especially those labeled with recycling codes 3 (phthalates) and 7 (bisphenol A).
  • Natural personal care products - Use natural and fragrance-free personal care products to reduce exposure to synthetic chemicals.
  • Check product labels - Read labels on household items, cosmetics, and packaging to identify and avoid products containing EDCs.
  • Proper disposal - Dispose of electronic waste and household chemicals properly to prevent environmental contamination.
  • Educate yourself - Stay informed about EDCs, their sources, and potential adverse effects
  • Ventilate living spaces- Ensure good ventilation in your home to reduce environmental exposure.
  • Reduce meat consumption- Limit consumption of animal products, as some EDCs can accumulate in animal fat.

If you have any questions about any of the above, please don't hesitate to reach out to the team. Alternatively, you can see how we support our patients through their fertility journeys by clicking the button below.

We know fertility challenges can be a difficult topic. Remember we are here every step of the way and more 💜