Fertility rates have collapsed as a result of environmental pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, and a totalitarian government has forced the few remaining fertile women into child-bearing servitude to ensure the procreation of mankind.
This dystopian future is the setting for the popular TV series The Handmaid’s Tale. Even though it is a fictional story, the plot might actually not be so far-fetched as it first appears.
The truth is that men’s sperm counts have more than halved in the last 40 years and are, according to scientists, likely to continue to drop in the future.
These alarming numbers were reported in a study published in the scientific journal Human Reproduction Update last year. It analysed results from 185 studies of nearly 43,000 men who had provided semen samples since the 1970s.
“It should act as a wake-up call to prompt further research”
While studies showing decreased sperm counts have been presented before, this is the first time that scientists can show that it is a clear and ongoing trend among men in the Western world. The study did not show the same trend in South America, Asia or Africa.
Leading experts in the field were very concerned with the numbers presented in the study. Prof. Daniel Brison, scientific director at the University of Manchester, said it should act as a wake-up call to prompt further research, calling the extent of the decline in sperm counts “shocking”.
Seeing as it takes hundreds of millions of sperm just to get one of them to make it all the way to the egg and fertilise it, it is easy to understand that declining sperm counts affect human reproduction in a profound way. By reducing the chances of conception, it naturally increases infertility rates in the population.
Coincidentally, this change in men is happening at the same time as many couples in Western societies are delaying their efforts to conceive a baby until the woman is in her thirties. At this point women’s fertility is declining rapidly, which really creates a double whammy for couple fertility.
“Fertility is fundamental to the health and survival of the world’s species – including humans”
A couple of weeks ago the world’s leading experts in male reproduction met in Stockholm to discuss the issue, and there was a shared concern among the participants. They felt that the issue has been overlooked for a long time and now needs to be taken seriously.
“Now, governments, authorities and the entire medical community must realise that fertility and general reproductive capacity are fundamental to the health and survival of the world’s species – including humans”, said Stefan Arver, one of Sweden’s leading experts in male reproduction, following the meeting.
So, what is causing this decrease in sperm counts?
Tight-fitting jeans, hot saunas and jacuzzis, mobile phones in front pockets, laptops resting on the lap. All of these have been shown to have an effect in some studies, but the biggest culprit of them all may be something entirely different.
Shanna Swan, one of the co-authors of the aforementioned study, says that certain toxic chemicals may play a huge role.
“Since the decline is only noticeable in the Western world it is very likely that certain chemicals in the environment are a major cause behind this”.
Many studies have shown that endocrine-disrupting compounds such as phthalates, flame retardants and bisphenols severely affect men’s fertility.
These substances can behave like hormones or interfere with native hormone behaviour and are especially potent during embryonic and foetal development, as well as puberty. They may also have effects that last for generations following exposure.
“These chemicals are all found in everyday products such as cosmetics, clothes and electronics“
And these chemicals are all found in everyday products such as cosmetics, clothes and electronics, which, interestingly enough, have become more widespread in society in parallel with the decrease in sperm counts.
But to identify an exact cause can be challenging. Even though we might know a thing or two about the effects that single substances have on our health, the truth of the matter is that we are exposed to complex mixtures of man-made chemicals every day.
And just what this chemical cocktail contains or does to us is something that we know very little about.
“We know enough to justify a much swifter phase-out of certain chemicals”
Lack of reliable data, or conclusions, is therefore an argument often used when discussing the regulation of specific chemicals, making the process of actually removing them from products very slow and tiresome.
“We know enough to justify a much swifter phase-out of certain chemicals. It’s ultimately the survival of our species at stake. How much more evidence should we ask for? Especially considering that these chemicals in many cases can be replaced with safer ones. For me it’s a no-brainer”, says Dr. Anna Lennquist, Senior Toxicologist at ChemSec.
Whatever the reason may be, the decline in sperm counts among men is alarming. If they have more than halved in the last 40 years, it is terrifying to imagine how low they will be in another 40 years.
Especially when scientists are saying that it will only get worse as we move forward in time. Maybe, in the future, there won’t be any fertile men left in the world.
The Handmaid’s Tale just got a little bit more real, didn’t it? Except, it seems like it is the men who are going infertile instead of the women.