Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Are They Causing Infertility in Men?

Last Update: March 21, 2024

Between 2008 and 2012, the birth rate dropped five percent in some of the world’s biggest industrialized countries, including the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. And so far, there’s no sign that the numbers are rebounding.

According to a scientific study in the journal, Physiological Reviews, socioeconomic factors and women delaying childbearing are part of the phenomenon, but they’re not the only links—the significant drop, researchers say, is also due to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in our food and household items that are now known to cause male infertility.

Researchers from Finland, Denmark, and the United States studied several variables associated with the epidemic and found that poor semen quality was a major factor. They also discovered that lower levels of testosterone, coupled with high levels of abnormal sperm, were more prevalent in the male participants aged 20 to 25. But why?

They believe that the reproductive issues most likely transpired during the men’s embryonic development, but—most importantly—they occurred not because of genetics but rather the mothers’ environmental exposure to EDCs.

Understanding the endocrine system

If you’re wondering what exactly endocrine disruptors do to the body, this article is a good start in understanding the dynamic. In short, the endocrine system consists of glands that secrete hormones, as well as receptors that detect and react to the hormones. The EDCs, however, manage to interfere with this sensitive communication system and effectively cause defects in the reproductive system, the brain and nervous system, and the immune system.

In recent years, researchers have learned a significant amount about how EDCs can alter essential hormonal functions, including:

  • Mimicking naturally-occurring hormones in the body such as estrogen (the female sex hormone) and androgen (the male sex hormone), as well as thyroid hormones, potentially causing overstimulation. This can lead to a whole host of issues like infertility, weight gain, sleeplessness, and chronic disease.
  • Binding to receptors within a cell and blocking the endogenous hormone from connecting. The normal signal to the brain then fails to occur and the body fails to respond properly, which halts normal functioning of important systems. Examples of chemicals that block or antagonize hormones are known as anti-estrogens and anti-androgens.
  • Interfering or blocking the way natural hormones are made and controlled; for example, by altering the way the liver metabolizes energy from food.

To study the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on fertility in particular, federal researchers spent four years following 500 couples at times when they were trying to conceive. One discovery that stood out was that, while both men and women were exposed to EDCs, men were more likely to suffer from fertility problems.

“It’s the males in the study that are driving the effect,” says Germaine Buck Louis, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “They’re the signal.”

It’s more than adults that are at risk

When it comes to endocrine disruptors, adults are not the only ones at risk. Infants and babies in the womb can be affected as well, sometimes even more strongly than adults because they absorb more materials and their immune systems are weaker.

If you’re trying to conceive, limit your exposure to items containing EDCs. Even low levels of these toxins might be problematic. Although there is still information we don’t know, FDA officials at least are starting to take action to reduce the public’s contact with these harsh chemicals and requiring better labeling.

How to avoid the chemicals

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are far too common in modern times, often found in personal care items such as shampoos, conditioners, body washes, lotions, and cosmetics that use a class of preservatives known as parabens, as well as metal food cans and plastic bottles with traces of BPA, and produce farmed with pesticides.

This is why it’s so important to use paraben-free personal care items and shop for organic groceries and BPA-free canned goods. BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and metals since the 1960s and are known to be harmful to the body. As well, opt for clean and safe household supplies since many cleansers and air fresheners also contain parabens.

These guidelines are not just for men, though. Endocrine disruption is also linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues in women.

While it may seem like a lot to change in your life, try doing it one step at a time. This week, you might begin by making the switch to organic, pesticide-free foods. Then, next week, toss out questionable personal care items and fill up your cart with paraben-free products—thankfully there’s a wide selection to choose from. Doing so will provide positive impact for you and future generations.

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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