21 May 2020
Floodwaters surged toward Midland, Mich., and one of the nation’s most extensive toxic cleanup sites, raising concerns of a wider environmental fallout from the dam disaster.
Disturbing trends in men’s reproductive health demand urgent attention
A recent meta-analysis by Levine and colleagues1 showing significant declines in sperm counts among men in the Western world caught considerable media attention.2 The Levine study followed a similar report in The BMJ 25 years ago.3 Should we be concerned? Is male reproductive health really at risk?
Meta-analyses have some inherent limitations. However, an important and often overlooked point about data on the quality of semen is that trend data should be interpreted with a holistic view of male reproductive health problems, including parallel trends in testicular germ cell cancer (TGCC). Incidence of this cancer has risen substantially over the past few decades, particularly in young men.4 Increases seem to be occurring even in countries that have had low incidence. TGCC is linked to risk of poor semen quality: reports suggest that countries with a high incidence of this cancer have generally lower semen quality and vice versa.5
Another good reason to pay special attention to the trends in testicular cancer is that registry data are considered to reflect true disease incidence. There are no large screening programmes that might skew incidence rates, as there are with cancers such as prostate. Importantly, strong clinical evidence exists that testicular cancer and spermatogenic disorders are biologically interrelated.6 This relation seems to have a fetal origin—congenital cryptorchidism is a risk factor for both TGCC and poor semen quality.67 One hypothesis is that these male reproductive disorders may be linked through a testicular dysgenesis syndrome,89 also affecting the function of testosterone producing Leydig cells. The serum testosterone concentrations among healthy men in the US, Denmark, and Finland have shown noteworthy falls over recent decades.1011
What could be causing such disturbing trends? The short answer is that we do not know. However, data suggesting that the incidence of testicular cancer has more than doubled in recent decades4 leaves little doubt that we should look into environmental causes— including lifestyle effects. Alterations in our genome cannot explain the observations as changes have occurred over just a couple of generations.
Environmental exposures can come through food, water, skin, and work and home environments. Both wildlife research and experimental studies suggest that modern lifestyles are associated with increased exposure to various endocrine disrupting chemicals such as pesticides that together may be harmful to wildlife and humans even though exposure to individual chemicals is low.1213 However, little has been done to explore their potential effects on semen quality and testicular cancer. In particular, studies of maternal exposures in pregnancy and the subsequent reproductive function of their sons are needed.
Should we be worried about our future ability to reproduce ourselves, as some media coverage has claimed?14 This inconvenient question makes sense when we look at what is going on in fertility clinics all over the world—more and more children are now born after in vitro fertilisation, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, and insemination with partner or donor sperm.15 However, despite increased use of assisted reproduction, fertility rates in many countries remain well below the replacement rate of an average of 2.1 children per woman. In many European countries, including Germany, Japan, and Singapore, fertility rates range between 1.0 and 1.5, and fertility has become important in political and economic debates.
In order to help future generations we must act now to prioritise new basic and clinical research programmes in reproductive medicine. Simple research questions urgently need answers. What is the role of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in reproductive trends? What is the role of lifestyle factors, including recreational drugs? What is the role of dysgenesis of fetal testis caused by maternal exposures? Why is the incidence of testicular cancer increasing among young men of reproductive age?
Medical researchers cannot do it alone. We need health and research authorities that can see the urgent need for research in reproductive medicine, not just more infertility treatments, which are a short term solution for individuals not for the fertility of future generations. It’s even possible that the use of intracytoplasmic sperm injection to overcome poor semen quality may be producing new generations with poor reproductive health.16
We have already waited too long. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote: “Our human future will only be as healthy as our sperm.”17
By Lynn Desjardins | email@example.com
Tuesday 10 October, 2017 , No Comments ↓
Five environmental groups say Canada’s law governing toxic chemicals is outdated and they urge the government to amend soon it to protect children and the general population. Muhannad Malas of Environmental Defence uses the example of a class of chemicals called phthalates to highlight the need to change the law.
Europe, some U.S. states have acted
“The Canadian government assessment of phthalates concluded, surprisingly, that none of that phthalates that were in the assessment…pose a risk to the health of Canadians,” he said. “And this is really not consistent with what we have seen in other jurisdictions like in Europe and in the United States where several states have designated a number of phthalates as harmful to health.”
These chemicals are used in plastic toys, personal care products, and food packaging. They are also used in fragrances and other scented products and there is no obligation for them to be mentioned on the labels of these products.
Phthalates may be in fragrances and other scented products. © iStock/Getty Images
Links to reproductive abnormalities
Environmental Defence says this group of chemicals has been linked to many health impacts including reproductive abnormalities and infertility.
Malas says the law governing toxics, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) was passed in 1999 and science has discovered much since then about the effects of hormone disruptors on the human body.
Environmental groups call for better protection for pregnant women, children and other vulnerable groups.
Groups call for proof chemicals are safe
He and other environmentalists would like the law to be amended to better protect vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women and to require proof chemicals are safe before they are used in consumer products.
“What we need to see here is…the idea of reversing the burden of proof onto industry when it comes to these substances of very high concern, like some phthalates like BPA, to make sure that they’re only used when their use is proven to be safe,” says Malas.
Government committee called for law changes
He says a House of Commons committee recently reviewed the CEPA and listed this burden of proof issue as one of 87 recommendations it made to update and reform the law. The environment minister has promised to consider the recommendations but the groups are calling on her to act soon. They are Environmental Defence, Ecojustice, David Suzuki Foundation, Equiterre, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).
Tagged with: CEPA, health, phthalates, toxic chemicals
Posted in Environment, Health
Oh, the Superfund program created in 1980 was a very good idea. Industries and businesses would be held accountable, through taxes, for polluting communities all over the United States. Those taxes – paid by landfill owners, chemical companies and industrial manufacturers – paid for cleanups of polluted sites, an often expensive proposition.
We know just how expensive because since the Superfund taxes expired in 1995, the cleanup and oversight costs for waste-polluted properties have run to more than $21 billion. And the money’s easy to track because it’s been paid by – you guessed it – taxpayers. Many hundreds of companies responsible for the contamination of water have paid nothing, because they’re out of business, they can’t be identified because of a change in ownership or oversight or they just can’t afford to pay for the cleanup.
So the tab goes to the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning to all Americans. The ones who do pay taxes.
This report on the Superfund program came from Carnegie-Knight News21, a national investigative reporting project out of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
This is a classic case of a good program failing to get the job done because the taxes that supported it were allowed to expire in 1995, and while this will doubtless shock Americans, members of Congress didn’t have the courage, political or personal, to support restarting the taxes. Christine Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, supports the reinstatement of taxes but says, “It was something for which Congress had no appetite. They just were not willing to consider anything that had the word ‘tax’ in it.”
That is of course a ridiculous irony: No law to put taxes on businesses that may be responsible for pollution, sometimes for absolutely horrendous pollution affecting thousands of acres and thousands of people – a chemical spill, for example – but a willingness to let average taxpayers pay the bills for offending industries.
And President Trump, of course, has actually proposed cuts in the Superfund program as it currently exists in an already anemic form.
The types of substances that can be involved in environmental spills of the type that the Superfund program is designed to clean up include, News21 reported, chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and infertility. And Census data shows that 53 million Americans live within 3 miles of a Superfund remedial site.
With less money in the program, what cleanups there are move more slowly, which means risks from environmental spills last longer.
The Superfund taxes should be reinstated. President Trump’s allies in the business world, such as they are, would howl, of course, but average Americans would support the idea – and more than 50 million of them are within 3 miles of a site, for goodness sakes.
For them, and for millions of other people likely to be affected in the future, as the risks from relaxed environmental regulations under Trump become greater, this is an issue that must be addressed with an urgency justified by the risks already looming for millions.
A federal agency in the United States took action last month to ban an entire class of toxic flame retardants from being added to a wide variety of consumer products, from baby toys to televisions. It’s a first for the U.S. — and it could be done in Canada too.
In its review of the science, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission found there was “overwhelming” evidence that halogenated flame retardants, also known as organohalogens, present a “serious public health issue.” As a result, these flame retardants will be prohibited in all children’s products and toys (but not car seats), upholstered residential furniture, mattresses and the plastic casings on electronics.
Notably, and appropriately, the commission also found that “precautionary labelling” would not provide adequate protection against the potential hazards. Instead of merely warning consumers, the commission opted to prohibit the presence of these chemicals in consumer products.
These flame retardants pose serious health risks, particularly to vulnerable populations. They migrate easily out of consumer products, regardless of how they are used, and accumulate in people.
Flame retardants have been linked to hormonal disruption, including lower sperm counts and infertility, neurological impacts, cancer, immune disorders and other health effects. They are known endocrine disruptors that can have significant impacts on health, even at very low doses, especially during fetal development, puberty and pregnancy.
In Canada, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, have been detected in the breast milk of almost all women tested. These results are worrying given that even though PBDEs have been banned internationally under the Stockholm Convention, they are built into many long-lasting consumer products and furniture in our homes, schools and workplaces. Computers, couches, mattresses and carpets will continue to expose us to PBDEs for years to come.
And yet, Canadian regulators are all over the map with respect to flame retardants. On PBDEs, Canada infamously refused to take meaningful regulatory action. The government found most PBDEs to be toxic substances in 2006, but it declined to ban or restrict them in consumer products in 2008 or in 2016.
Conversely, Canada took strong (albeit much belated) regulatory action on the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) in 2016, banning it in all consumer and industrial products with minor, time-limited exemptions.
Currently, Canada is completing a risk assessment for a grouping of 10 halogenated flame retardants. These regrettable substitutes are being used by industry as replacements for PDBEs and other controlled chemicals, but contain the same worrisome chemical structures.
In a haphazard and incomplete draft assessment in 2016, Canada proposed to declare only some of these flame retardants toxic, shielding the rest from regulation. Thus, Canada’s proposed regulatory approach for this large group of flame retardants is significantly at odds with the new U.S. approach, where almost all of these 10 flame retardants will be banned.
Canada could take a more coherent, precautionary path on flame retardants under current law. It could follow the U.S. lead and ban toxic flame retardants in entire classes of consumer products.
Our legal research shows the federal government could act in one of two ways. (In the future, there may also be a third option.)
The first option is for the federal government to simply ban classes of products containing halogenated flame retardants under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act (CCPSA), a similar approach to that taken in the U.S.
Canada has done this before, when it banned products made of polyurethane foam containing tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP) that were intended for children younger than three. Likewise, existing CCPSA regulations limit – but do not ban – the use of flame retardants in some products such as children’s pyjamas.
One drawback to this option is that the aim of CCPSA is only to protect human health and safety. The act is not meant to protect ecosystems or wildlife like killer whales and belugas whose survival is also jeopardized by the flame retardants that enter waterways and bioaccumulate in the food web. Still, keeping toxic consumer goods off shelves stops new sources of exposure, and has clear benefits for humans and wildlife.
The second option is for the federal government to ban consumer products containing toxic flame retardants under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). The government typically implements this law on a chemical-by-chemical basis, but CEPA does allow broader approaches. For example, the government has the ability to ban or regulate toxic substances in any product, and it has done so, with exceptions, for PCBs. However, for Canada to ban a class of chemicals under CEPA, each chemical must first go through a lengthy toxicity assessment, which would take years to complete.
There is, however, a solution. Catherine McKenna, the minister of environment and climate change, could make an “interim order” to ban halogenated flame retardants in consumer products before finding each substance to be toxic, provided that she and the health minister “believe that immediate action is required to deal with a significant danger to the environment or to human life or health.”
If cabinet approved an interim order, it could stay in effect for two years. This would allow time for individual flame retardants to be declared toxic.
It would also allow Canada to review the findings of the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel, which the U.S. Commission is convening to further study the effects of halogenated flame retardants on consumers’ health.
But there may also be a third option in the future. After hearing from experts and stakeholders, a House of Commons committee report urged amendments to the act so that Canadians would be better protected from endocrine-disrupting chemicals like flame retardants. In her Oct. 6 response to the report, Minister McKenna does not commit to amending CEPA, unfortunately. However, she does promise to evaluate potential amendments. Strengthening CEPA remains an option on the table.
None of these three options, by itself, is a perfect solution to the hazardous and ubiquitous exposure to toxic flame retardants we encounter everyday. Yet perfection need not be the enemy of protection. With its decision to ban these harmful substances in consumer products, the U.S. Commission has embraced the need to take precautionary action. Canada should do the same.
The EU's efforts to regulate chemicals which can potentially disrupt the body's hormones suffered a setback today when MEPs blocked a key proposal.
The European Parliament voted against a list produced by the European Commission of criteria to help identify what are known as endocrine disruptors in products used to protect farm animals and plants from disease and insects.
Endocrine disruptors are believed to have a role in many health conditions, from obesity to infertility, and are found in many common goods such as cosmetics or even toys.
"Parliament blocked an EU Commission proposal which would have exempted some chemicals in pesticides from being identified as endocrine disruptors, on Wednesday," parliament said in a statement.
It accused the commission, the executive arm of the 28- nation bloc, of "exceeding its mandate".
The setback came just three months after an apparent breakthrough in a three-year stand-off over the chemicals, when EU member states approved the commission's list.
EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said in a statement that he "regrets" the parliament decision, adding that "in this case no deal is a bad deal for EU citizens."
"The commission will now need to reflect on next steps to take," he said.
The body's endocrine system -- in the ovaries and testes, as well as the adrenal, pituitary and thyroid glands -- produce hormones that are secreted into the bloodstream to control and coordinate a range of critical body functions.
These hormones help regulate energy levels, reproduction, growth, development, as well as our response to stress and injury.
The disruptors issue has pitted industry and agriculture against consumer and environmental groups for many years.
The EU even announced last year that it had reached broad agreement on what substances were involved but had to go back to the drawing board amid controversy.
MEPs vote against exempting some pesticides
By Beata Stur
The European Parliament on October 4 blocked a European Commission proposal that would have exempted some chemicals in pesticides from being identified as endocrine disruptors.
MEPs said the Commission exceeded its mandate by proposing to exempt substances which are designed to attack an organism’s endocrine system.
Tabled by MEPs Jytte Guteland and Bas Eickhout, the objection was approved by 389 votes to 235, with 70 abstentions.
Now the European Commission will draft a new version of the text.
Under existing EU law, pesticides or biocide substances must have no endocrine-disrupting effects on other species than the ones targeted. To apply this rule, the EU needs a list of scientific criteria for identifying endocrine disruptors.
In 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that the EU Commission had breached EU law by failing to publish criteria for determining endocrine disrupters due at the end of 2013. MEPs have repeatedly urged the EU to clamp down on the substances.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), endocrine disruptors are a “global threat”. It pointed to evidence of adverse reproductive effects (infertility, cancers, malformations) which could also affect thyroid function, brain function, obesity, metabolism, insulin and glucose homeostasis.
The Gaza Strip was a month into this summer’s suffocating electricity crisis when Thair Salah Mortaja became a father for the first time. He had spent thousands of dollars to overcome infertility – first paying for drugs, then a futile operation, and finally for costly in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – but the struggle for parenthood did not end there.
His wife, Fatima, went into labour when she was just seven months pregnant, partly because of poor prenatal care. Their doctor wanted to get her to a specialist in Nablus, but the hard-to-procure permit to exit blockaded Gaza into Israel and proceed to the West Bank city didn’t come through. After a tense labour, she gave birth prematurely to triplets (multiple births are common with IVF). But the intensive baby care unit at Gaza’s largest hospital, Shifa, was already over capacity.
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Thair Salah Mortaja, left, with his uncle, centre, and father, right, and his uncle’s children. Photograph: Miriam Berger
So they waited hours until an incubator became available. The doctors decided to put the son and one daughter together in the incubator, run by generators amid the power shortages. The third child remained on oxygen in a little bed beside her siblings. The overstressed intensive care unit frequently makes such arrangements for IVF twins and triplets, a doctor explained.
The war-torn and impoverished coastal enclave – which the UN has declared “unlivable” – is a surprising place to find widespread access to IVF treatment. But it is accepted by Palestinians in Gaza, for whom having children is a source of social respect, national strength and religious duty – feelings only heightened by the death and destruction around them. Amid socio-economic pressure to conceive, IVF has also been a politically expedient tool to garner goodwill: this summer, Gaza’s extremist Hamas government provided free treatment for chosen couples, as did the NGO run by the wife of another major Palestinian political player, Mohammed Dahlan.
A week on, Fatima was back home recovering while the couple’s babies remained hospitalised. Mortaja’s heart was still racing constantly. In the weeks before, and since, several babies have died waiting for the rival Palestinian Authority and Israel to approve exit permits for people to receive urgent care unavailable in resource-limited Gaza. One day that week in July at Shifa’s intensive care unit, a baby who had just died lay in an incubator, his body withered and still, before doctors removed him to make way for another.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since 2007, while Israel and Egypt have kept Gaza blockaded on security grounds. Now Gaza’s 2 million people are faced with unemployment and population density that is among the highest in the world, stuck in what they often describe as an open-air prison.
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Palestinian boys stand beside Hamas militants as they take part in a military show against Israel’s newly installed security measures at the entrance to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip. Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
The dire situation worsened in June when the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, stopped paying Israel for Gaza’s electricity in an attempt to squeeze Hamas out. In response, in the dead heat of summer, Israel cut electricity and Gazans went from having eight hours of power to just three or four. Anger against the authority, its Fatah party, and Hamas, along with Israel, only grew.
In these circumstances, IVF comes with a host of complications. The fertility rate in Gaza is among the highest in the Arab region, with 4.5 children a couple, compared with the West Bank’s 3.6, according to a 2017 UN Population Fund report. Dr Bakr Qaoud, of the Gaza City Helow Centre, says more than 1,000 couples annually try the treatment in Gaza through private clinics, at a cost of $2,000-$2,500 (£1,500-£1,900) a round. He says thousands more would like it, but can’t pay.
Dr Mohamed Jouda, who runs the Hala Centre in Gaza City, says that over the years he’s been working in the field he has seen a decline in male fertility rates, which he attributes to the stresses of war and environmental factors such as the use of herbicides and other toxins.
There are, however, no formal studies of infertility rates in Gaza. Neither is there research into the impact of pesticides used by Israelis and Palestinians, although rumours in Gaza persist that the Israelis use pesticides on food imported into Gaza that contribute to male infertility.
While some conservative communities object to IVF, Hamas has supported and subsidised the treatment, funding couples during the yearly Ramadan holiday. Gaza is also politically polarised – right down to which clinics people use, says Qaoud, explaining that some are known to be Hamas funded.
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Palestinian children do their homework during a power cut in Gaza. Residents of Gaza, home to 2 million people, have been experiencing long hours of electricity outage. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Mortaja didn’t have any political connections to pay for IVF treatment. In the five years since his marriage, he has spent about $10,000 on hospital visits, operations and IVF. They have sold Fatima’s gold dowry and got into debt with friends and family.
Others are luckier: Ziad Khader, 35, an actor, was among 600 couples to receive free treatment from a charity run by Dahlan’s wife.
For nine years, Khader and his wife failed to conceive. Then he saw an advertisement for funding from Jaleela Dahlan’s group. His wife is now three months pregnant with twins.
Khader is from a Fatah family, and he says he is thankful for the support from Dahlan, who is also Fatah. But he loathes being indebted to anyone. He would rather support his family, he says, but there are no jobs.
“It’s a siege of ideas,” says Khader of the political and economic repression. For now, though, he can’t see beyond the excitement of his wife expecting twins.
FARGO, ND — Tears were shed at a town hall meeting in Fargo about the life changing effects of Agent Orange.
Many children of Vietnam veterans spoke about how exposure to the chemical impacts multiple generations.
Families of survivors are still looking for answers more than four decades after the Vietnam War.
“So it was straight Agent Orange that I was rolling in,” said Glenn, an area veteran. “I found out in March, I have Parkinson’s disease.”
Agent Orange was a heavy dioxin used to flatten vegetation and deprive the Vietkong cover during battles.
To this day, the children of vets exposed to the chemical have health problems unexplained by many doctors.
“We have a granddaughter that is just turning eight,” Glenn’s wife told the crowd. “They never have come up with a diagnosis except that she is severely mentally delayed.”
The children and grandchildren of these vets share conditions like autism, infertility and hip dysplasia.
“Not only do our parents suffer, but we continue to suffer,” one mother said.
Another woman said her father who served was killed by a rare form of cancer four years ago.
“It was directly related to his exposure to Agent Orange,” she said. “We struggle through many years with infertility. Luckily, we were able to have two children.”
“My Joshua was born in 1978,” said Maynard, one of the town hall’s leaders. “They finally came back and said that he has a severe learning disability. Plus he had a dislocated hip which we hear all the time.”
After sharing their stories, many wrote them down to help the VA and researchers learn more about the chemical’s effects.
Many feel they aren’t receiving the help they need from the government.
“We’ve found out it’s going to go three, four, five… maybe even six generations into our grandchildren,” said ND Vietnam Vets Of America President, Dan Stenvold.
Every town hall meeting brings these victims another step closer to finding answers.
There are more Agent Orange town hall meetings throughout the upper Midwest all year round.
For more information, click here.
President Trump has vowed to revive America's coal industry, but Big Coal suffered a major setback Tuesday in this Washington.
The Washington Department of Ecology denied a key water quality permit for the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals coal export facility in Longview, a coal export facility proposed for the site of an old Alcoa/Reynolds Metals aluminum plant.
"After careful evaluation of the application and the final State Environmental Policy Act environmental impact statement, Ecology is denying the Section 401 Water Quality Certification, with prejudice," said the state agency.
It cites potential impacts on water, clean air and climate, making the project a cause of "significant unavoidable harm."
The denial is the latest major setback in efforts to make the Pacific Northwest an export hub for the carbon economy. The proposed Gateway Pacific, north of Bellingham, was vetoed by the Army Corps of Engineers because of impacts on the Lummi Indians. Oregon has vetoed a proposed coal terminal on its side of the Columbia River.
And a oil train terminal, proposed for the Port of Grays Harbor, recently bit the dust.
Millennium would have been the biggest coal export facility in North America, with a capacity to send up to 44 million tons of Powder River and Unita Basin coal from Wyoming to Asian markets each year.
The terminal would have been supplied by 16 trains a day traveling between Wyoming and the Columbia River waterfront just west of Longview.
"The state did the right thing today, standing up for clean water, public health and the Pacific Northwest's iconic endangered salmon runs," said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky of Power Past Coal.
"Washington State and the city of Longview deserve better than empty promises from the dying coal industry."
Speaking for a pro-coal export group, the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, Mike Bridges said rejection of the permit "lays bare the real regulatory process in Washington state is political theater.
"This process was pre-determined, and was only in search of some hook to hang their reasoning for rejecting the proposed terminal," said Bridges, president of the Longview/Kelso Building Trades.
The state identified numerous impacts in and beyond water quality in Southwest Washington.
The terminal would have meant 1,680 additional trips each year by large coal-hauling vessels traversing the Columbia River estuary, on top of 4,400 by other ships. The state cited the potential for large wakes disrupting juvenile salmon.
The project would have involved the filling of 24 acres of wetlands. Coal dust would have been discharged from mile-and-a-half long trains. Ecology also cited spills from coal trains traveling down the Columbia River.
"Project-related trains and other operations would increase diesel particulate pollution along the Reynolds Lead, BNSF spur and BNSF mainline in Cowlitz County at levels that would result in increased cancer risk rates," Ecology reported.
Cowlitz County is in need of economic growth, but the Millennium project drew widespread public opposition, noted 60 miles north in the state capital of Olympia.
"The denial reflects the will of the people:Thank you to Washington's leaders for moving us away from dirty coal and towards a clean energy future," said Joan Crooks, CEO of the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.
A spokesperson for the jobs/export alliance, former Republican congressional aide Mariana Parks, brought Seattle into the picture.
"Where was the outrage, the protests, the hand wringing when King County dumped 235 million gallons of sewage into Puget Sound this past spring?" Parks asked. "Where was Ecology then? Why no public hearings or public admonishments? Where was the environmental outrage then?"
Millennium Bulk Terminals plans to appeal Ecology's decision to the state's Environmental and Land Use Hearings Office.
Columnist Joel Connelly has written about politics for the P-I since 1973.
Email Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Facebook.
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Hormones—chemical messengers secreted by internal (endocrine) glands to control body functions—were discovered as the 20th century began, launching the field of endocrinology. Within a few decades, several natural steroids including the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone had been identified. But since the 1930s, we have been increasingly exposed to many endocrine disruptors—artificial organic substances that mimic natural hormones and can threaten human health.
Although the U.S. has been slow to control endocrine disruptors, pressure is mounting for legislators to make significant regulatory changes in Europe, although the European Commission has also dragged its feet. In December 2015, the European Union’s Court of Justice decreed that the Commission had breached EU law by failing to adopt scientific criteria for identifying and regulating endocrine disruptors. The European Parliament met in February 2017 to consider a proposal defining those criteria, but member states decided to postpone a decision. France did not wait for the E.U. to take effective action. As of January 2015, new French legislation outlawed any contact between the known endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA) and beverages or food.
The challenge to developing appropriate regulations for endocrine disruptors is that evidence from epidemiology for health effects is indirect and difficult to collect. Cancers abound in modern industrialized societies. Environmental factors are surely involved, yet hard to pinpoint. It took three decades to establish that DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) and DES (diethylstilbestrol) impair health. Both are now strictly controlled, but their effects persist across generations.
In the 1930s, British biochemist Edward “Charles” Dodds began a systematic search for organic chemicals with estrogen-like effects. Mass production of natural hormones was uneconomical, so Dodds sought cheap alternatives. For his experiments, he surgically removed the ovaries of female rats to inactivate their reproductive systems. Any injected substance that restored cell division in the womb and vagina, increasing their weight, necessarily had estrogen-like properties.
All natural steroids have a basic core of four carbon rings, once regarded as essential for any compound to act like an estrogen. But the Dodds team identified many estrogen mimics with three, two, or even just one carbon ring. Early examples with two rings were the bisphenols, a dozen compounds that stimulated cell division in wombs and vaginas to different degrees. But Dodds and colleagues soon switched attention to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a newly synthesized chemical with far greater potency. Ominously, they found that many estrogen-mimicking substances also disrupted reproduction in laboratory rats and rabbits whose reproductive systems were intact.
In parallel, other chemists were developing new organic pesticides. The discovery of DDT, which played a pivotal role in controlling disease-carrying insects during the second half of WWII, was hailed as a breakthrough. After 1945, DDT also became widely used as an agricultural pesticide. Yet, evidence for serious effects on both wildlife and human health soon accumulated. DDT, an organic substance with two carbon rings like BPA, has some estrogen-like effects and was one of the first endocrine disruptors to be recognized. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s best-seller Silent Spring crystalized mounting concerns, galvanizing environmentalism. Tragically, Carson herself died from breast cancer in 1964 when she was only 56, but her legacy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was founded six years later.
The EPA banned agricultural use of DDT in the USA in 1972, and worldwide prohibition eventually followed in 2004. In the meantime, DDT has been implicated in reproductive cancers, miscarriages, low birth weight, and male infertility. Alarmingly, very small doses during pregnancy are veritable time bombs. Major effects on fetal development first emerge years after maternal exposure to standard doses. For instance, the risk of breast cancer is almost quadrupled in daughters after puberty.
A parallel controversy surrounded medical uses of DES, exploiting the potent estrogen-like effects originally discovered by Dodds and colleagues. Nancy Langston’s 2010 book Toxic Bodies compellingly tells the story. In 1941, physicians began to prescribe DES as an estrogen substitute to alleviate menopausal symptoms. Then, in 1947, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved DES both to treat pregnant women—supposedly to reduce miscarriage risks—and to promote growth in farm animals. Inane advertisements proclaimed that DES “makes normal pregnancies more normal.”
As with DDT, evidence mounted that DES caused problems in human reproduction. A crucial development came in 1971: An otherwise extremely rare vaginal cancer of aging women had been found repeatedly in young women—“DES daughters”—whose mothers had received the drug during pregnancy. Later that year, the FDA at last advised doctors to stop prescribing DES during pregnancy. By then, at least 3 million pregnancies had been affected in the U.S. alone.
The prescription of DES for pregnant mothers ceased in the U.S. after 1971. Agricultural use of DDT was banned a year later. Surely, 45 years on, such health threats should be history? Not so. Because both DES and DDT disrupt fetal development, effects persist today, and disturbing experimental evidence from laboratory rodents indicates that further generations may be afflicted. Moreover, other estrogen mimics are now rife. BPA, whose estrogen-like effects were reported 80 years ago by the Dodds group, is a prominent example. It is used to make polycarbonate plastics for packaging food and drink, and epoxy resins, which commonly coat the insides of cans and copper water pipes. Many other everyday items such as DVDs, sunglasses, and medical devices also contain BPA. Almost universally present in human blood and urine in industrialized countries, BPA is just one example. Others are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and phthalates.
Compared to adults, BPA exposure is doubled for children generally and 10 times greater for babies in intensive care units. The use of BPA for baby bottles, now retired by many manufacturers, is a prime cause for concern. In one notable experiment, 77 Harvard University student volunteers drank cold liquids from polycarbonate bottles for just one week and their urinary BPA levels rose by more than two thirds. At least for baby bottles, several nations—including the U.S., but only since 2012—have officially recognized BPA’s potential toxic effects.
Extensive work on laboratory rodents by pioneers such as Frederick vom Saal, Ana Soto, and Carlos Sonnenschein revealed major effects of BPA on reproductive function in both sexes. The most alarming changes occurred with low doses during fetal development. Other studies also yielded evidence that BPA adversely affects human reproduction. In 2011, epidemiologist De-Kun Li and colleagues directly compared semen quality with urinary BPA levels in more than 200 men working in factories in China, some with levels 50 times above baseline. Increasing urinary BPA was significantly associated with decreasing semen quality.
Many studies have linked BPA and other endocrine disruptors to increasing infertility and higher rates of reproductive cancers in both men and women. Although human evidence is largely circumstantial, it is substantiated by laboratory experiments on rodents and primates.
But what about estrogen surrogates used in contraceptive pills? Worrying reports some years ago suggested that they might increase the risk of breast cancer. However, careful study showed that use of contraceptive pills is actually associated with earlier detection and hence, beneficial. The main estrogen substitute used, ethinyl estradiol, has a basic core of four carbon rings and is structurally very close to the natural hormone estradiol. So perhaps endocrine disruptors cause problems because they have fewer carbon rings. By chance, they trigger estrogen receptors on cell surfaces, but the structural differences are harmful. This is a key aspect that needs targeted research going forward.
Unfortunately, current political initiatives in Congress aim to curtail the EPA. Proposals for new legislation range from specific initiatives that include cessation of monitoring of endocrine disruptors to complete closure of the agency. The EPA is the primary bastion protecting the public against environmental toxins, and has been fighting an uphill battle. The persistent toxic cocktail of endocrine disruptors in the environment shows just how far we still have to go to achieve effective control. What is needed is more research and more regulation, not a return to the bad old days when DDT and DES were allowed to run rampant.
Robert Martin is Curator Emeritus at the Field Museum in Chicago and an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago. He has conducted extensive research into primate evolution and reproductive biology, and is the author of How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction. Background research for this opinion piece was accomplished during a resident fellowship at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.
By Bryan Anderson September 20 at 7:25 PM
PHOENIX — Over the past 20 years, American taxpayers have spent more than $21 billion in cleanup and oversight costs for properties polluted by dangerous wastes, known as Superfund sites, while hundreds of companies responsible for contaminating water paid little to nothing, an analysis of congressional budget data shows.
The Superfund program, established in 1980, was meant to hold industries and businesses — such as landfill operators, chemical companies and manufacturers — accountable for polluting communities across the country. For years, petroleum, chemical and corporate taxes imposed by Congress funded the vast majority of the Superfund program, including expensive cleanups.
But since the Superfund taxes expired in 1995, the burden of paying the costs shifted dramatically. Today, most of the program’s funding comes through taxpayer dollars, according to data reviewed by News21, a national investigative reporting project.
When companies that polluted groundwater sources cannot be identified, no longer exist or can’t afford cleanup costs, the Environmental Protection Agency often assumes responsibility.
“It would be good to get the Superfund tax back because the industries were able to absorb that a whole lot more easily than the individual . . . or a taxpayer in a local community,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator.
Christine Whitman resides in Old Wick, a rural New Jersey town outside Newark. After her tenure as the governor of the state, she became the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. (Karl Schneider/News21)
News21 spent months examining more than 1,700 Superfund sites and found companies dealing with dumping, mining, dry-cleaning and wood treatment are among the nation’s biggest polluters. Lead, arsenic and mercury are the most common contaminants found at Superfund sites.
At the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee, the Energy Department produced enriched uranium for nuclear bombs during World War II and the Cold War. Mercury contamination has prevented residents from fishing and swimming along a nearby creek, and residents near the Superfund site remain concerned about the safety of their drinking water.
“If I’m thirsty enough, I’ll drink,” said Dynasti Kirk, an Oak Ridge resident. “But I don’t trust it.” The EPA has linked hazardous substances to a variety of human health problems, including birth defects, cancer, nervous system damage and infertility. Using census data, a 2015 EPA report found 53 million people live within three miles of a Superfund remedial site.
Congressional funding has gradually decreased, making it more difficult to oversee and enforce the program. From 1999 through 2013, appropriations to the EPA’s Superfund program were cut from about $2 billion to about $1.1 billion, according to a 2015 Government Accountability Office report.
At most Superfund sites, the EPA is able to identify potentially responsible parties. Even so, those companies are under no legal obligation to maintain or disclose their cleanup costs, according to the GAO. Companies generally keep cost information confidential.
[Houston’s flooding fills Superfund sites, which may spill toxins]
Less money has meant slower cleanups. It takes years for a typical Superfund site to be removed from the National Priorities List (NPL). More than half of the original 406 sites added onto the NPL in 1983 remain on the list today.
Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, pushed for a reauthorization of the Superfund taxes so the agency could pay for more enforcement and cleanup. “We kept pointing out this money is running out; we need to do this,” Whitman said.
The Bush administration determined it was not a political battle worth fighting, she added. “It was something for which Congress had no appetite,” she said. “They just were not willing to consider anything that had the word ‘tax’ in it.”
Democrats failed to renew the taxes when they controlled the House and Senate at the start of Obama’s first term.
Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program from 2009 through 2017 under President Barack Obama, said cleanups were “competing with the multitude of other activities and obligations of the federal government.”
“There was a reason why the Superfund tax was put in place,” he said. “Where you don’t have a liable responsible party, let’s at least have the business activities that are most associated with contaminants found at Superfund sites pay for those sites versus the general taxpayer.”
In March, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), introduced the Superfund Polluter Pays Act, similar to other bills introduced over the past decade. All have failed.
“If everyone in Washington lived within a mile of a Superfund site, I have a feeling there’d be a lot more urgency,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said. “But because it’s not affecting our families or our children, it doesn’t seem that we have that kind of urgency. That’s just not right, and I’m very angry about it.”
New Jersey is home to 114 active Superfund sites, the most in the country.
“These aren’t Republican and Democrat issues,” Whitman said. “These are people issues. These are about human health and the environment. Mother Nature could care less whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or which state you live in.”
President Trump’s budget proposed a 30 percent cut to the Superfund program, including investigations, enforcement and cleanup.
“Every federal agency is having to tighten its belt right now,” said Marianne Horinko, also an EPA administrator under Bush. “But I think EPA’s core mission and its values are too important to the American people to have drastic cuts. I think, eventually, the EPA, and Superfund in particular, will continue to assume an important role.”
This report is part of the project Troubled Water, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
A landmark study revealed earlier this week that billions of people globally are drinking water contaminated by plastic particles. Almost 95 per cent of tap water samples tested in the US contained traces of plastic.
Drinking water in the UK didn’t fare much better, with almost three-quarters of European drinking water tainted by the spectre of plastic pollution. We can’t go on like this. Whitehall needs to wake up and end the plastic crisis.
It’s not hard to see why plastic has become such a menace to our water supply. Plastic debris fills our oceans, rivers, and reservoirs. Last year I swam in the Indian Ocean while filming a documentary about the curse of ocean plastic.
Rivers carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year
Just moments after diving in I discovered the true horrors of what was lying beneath the seemingly pristine surface. I was swimming in a toxic soup of plastic debris. Trying desperately to avoid swallowing any of the polluted water, I was surrounded by a hideous mix of polyethylene bottles, carrier bags, and plastic wrapping.
Plastic doesn’t discriminate. It taints all marine environments regardless of where they are in the world. The pollution crisis is particularly bad in the Pacific Ocean, where plastic has become a mainstay of the marine environment. First discovered around 30 years ago, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a hideous smog of plastic debris which covers an area bigger than India.
Fogle is seen under the water with a snorkle mask on with bits of plastic floating past
Ben Folge swimming through plastic off Sri Lanka in 2011
Our rivers are also brimming with plastic, further putting at risk the water we drink. Researchers at The Ocean Cleanup – a Dutch foundation developing new technologies for ridding the oceans of plastic – say rivers carry an estimated 1.15-2.41 million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year, an amount that needs between 48,000 to over 100,000 dump trucks to carry it away.
Industry is often quick to play down the effects of plastic pollution on health, but this seriously complacent attitude is putting us all at risk. Despite a whole host of studies raising grave concerns about the chronic health problems that plastic has been linked to, both government and industry is failing to do anything about it.
The scale of the plastic health crisis is truly alarming. As well as contaminating water supplies, it’s clear that plastic is tainting the food we eat. A 2016 study by the University of Ghent revealed that Britons who eat seafood risk ingesting up to 11,000 pies of plastic every year. Fish stocks are now so full of plastic that up to one-third of the fish caught off the coast of South West England is thought to contain traces of it.
It’s now getting so bad that the UN is being forced to step in. A ground-breaking UN Environment Project Report warned last year that people who consumer plastic-contaminated fish could be exposed to substances that cause genetic disruption, infertility, and even poisoning. With more and more plastic finding its way into oceans, rivers, and reservoirs every day, the plastic health crisis is only set to get worse in the decades ahead.
Whitehall has done almost nothing to get a grip of the plastic health crisis. It took authorities in England more than a decade to follow Ireland and introduce a statutory charge for plastic bags.
A plastic Tesco shopping bag
There's now a charge on plastic bags, a full decade after a similar charge was introduced in Ireland CREDIT: CHRIS RADBURN/PA WIRE
There has been no indication that England is set to follow Scotland’s lead and introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles. The Government’s response to the plastic crisis has been lacklustre in the extreme.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove is desperately searching for a way of making his mark in his new Cabinet brief. Introducing the UK’s first plastic-free strategy would be a start.
Instead of the piecemeal approach which has seen half-hearted anti-plastic measures implemented at sporadic intervals, Whitehall needs to formulate a long-term coherent plan outlining how it plans to drive down the amount of plastic being dumped in the environment.
While the Government must do more on plastic, that’s not to say that UK plc doesn’t have major room for improvement. Earlier this year, I joined forces with campaign group A Plastic Planet to call for a plastic-free aisle in supermarkets. A plastic-free aisle would be a great way of giving consumers real choice over what they buy. Given that shoppers are increasingly hunting for purchases that don’t cost the earth, a plastic-free aisle would allow supermarkets to attract a growing band of eco-savvy consumers.
The plastic health crisis should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about securing a great future for generations to come. Strong action from both the Government and British business is a no-brainer if we are to call time on the lunacy of plastic pollution.
Ben Fogle is backing campaign group A Plastic Planet’s calls for a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. To find out more please visit aplasticplanet.com
Hagai Levine doesn’t scare easily. The Hebrew University public health researcher is the former chief epidemiologist for the Israel Defense Forces, which means he’s acquainted with danger and risk in a way most of his academic counterparts aren’t. So when he raises doubts about the future of the human race, it’s worth listening. Together with Shanna Swan, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Levine authored a major new analysis that tracked male sperm levels over the past few decades, and what he found frightened him. “Reproduction may be the most important function of any species,” says Levine. “Something is very wrong with men.”
That’s something you may not be used to hearing. It may take a man and a woman—or at least a sperm and an egg—to form new life, but it is women who bear the medical and psychological burden of trying to get—and stay—pregnant. It is women whose lifestyle choices are endlessly dissected for their supposed impact on fertility, and women who hear the ominous tick of the biological clock. Women are bombarded with countless fertility diets, special fertility-boosting yoga practices and all the fertility apps they can fit on their phone. They are the targets of a fertility industry expected to be valued at more than $21 billion globally by 2020. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fixates on women, tracking infertility in the U.S. by tallying the number of supposedly infertile women. “It is as if the entire medical realm is shaped to cater to women’s infertility and women’s bodies,” says Liberty Barnes, a sociologist and the author of Conceiving Masculinity: Male Infertility, Medicine, and Identity. “For men, there’s just nothing there.”
That absence might be understandable if women were solely responsible for the success or failure of a pregnancy. But they’re not. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the male partner is either the sole or contributing cause in about 40 percent of cases of infertility. Past infections, medical conditions, hormonal imbalances and more can all cause what is known as male factor infertility. Men even have their own version of a biological clock. Beginning around their mid-30s, male fertility gradually degrades, and while most men produce sperm to their dying day, those past 40 who help conceive have a greater risk of passing on genetic abnormalities to their children, including autism. “Men are a huge part of this problem,” says Barbara Collura, the president and CEO of Resolve: the National Infertility Association.
Startling new evidence suggests male infertility may be much worse than it appears. According to Levine and Swan’s work, sperm levels—the most important measurement of male fertility—are declining throughout much of the world, including the U.S. The report, published in late July, reviewed thousands of studies and concluded that sperm concentration had fallen by 59.3 percent among men in Western countries between 1973 and 2011. Four decades ago, the average Western man had a sperm concentration of 99 million per milliliter. By 2011, that had fallen to 47.1 million. The plummet is alarming because sperm concentrations below 40 million per milliliter are considered below normal and can impair fertility. (The researchers found no significant declines for non-Western men, in part because of a lack of quality data, though other studies have found major drops in countries like China and Japan.) And the decline has grown steeper in recent years, which means that the crisis is deepening. “This is pretty scary,” says Swan, who has long studied reproductive health. “I think we should be very concerned about this trend.”
Although there have reports of declining sperm counts before, they were easy to ignore. Research on sperm levels has been spotty, using different methodologies and drawing from varying groups, making it difficult to know that the declines some scientists observed were real, and not a function of miscounting. Skeptics of the latest conclusions countered that the new report was a study of many studies—it could only be as good as the work from which it drew. And even if the conclusions of the meta-analysis are accurate, the average sperm count still leaves most men on the normal side of fertile. Just barely.Yet fertility rates—the number of live births per woman—have drastically declined in the same countries with falling sperm counts. That includes the U.S., where fertility rates hit a record low this year, and where women are no longer bearing enough children to replace the existing population. Women need to average roughly 2.1 children—enough to replace themselves and their partner, with a spare bit to offset kids who don’t survive to reproductive age—to keep a country’s population stable through birth alone. The U.S. is at 1.8 and dependent on continued immigration to keep the population growing. Sociological and economic factors play a role in the changing size of the American family. Fertility rates were above the replacement level until the 2007 recession, then they plunged. And despite a years-long economic recovery and low unemployment, they’re still falling. Pair that with studies showing that nearly one in six couples in the U.S. trying to get pregnant can’t do so over the course of a year of unprotected sex—the medical definition of infertility—and it’s clear that something beyond economic insecurity is preventing Americans from having as many babies as they want. “When I see birth rates going down, I worry as a fertility doctor that men’s sperm counts are declining,” says Harry Fisch, a urologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.
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This would seem to be the moment for the medical world to throw everything it can at understanding what is happening to male fertility. Yet researchers on male reproduction are forced to rely on less-than-perfect data because the kind of comprehensive, longitudinal studies that might conclusively tell us what is happening to sperm counts have never been done. The irony is that the medical establishment has been accused—with reason—of ignoring the particular needs of women over the years, yet in reproduction it is men whose problems are poorly studied and often misunderstood. Some experts even wonder whether an unconscious desire to ignore threats to male fertility may be tied up in fears over the future of masculinity itself. “Here is direct evidence that that function of reproduction is failing,” says Michael Eisenberg, a urologist and an associate professor at Stanford University, referring to the latest sperm-level research. “We should try to figure out why that is.”What we do know about declining sperm counts tells us a great deal about not only reproduction but also the overall health of men—and what it tells us isn’t good. Young men may think themselves invincible, but the male reproductive system is a surprisingly temperamental machine. Obesity, inactivity, smoking—your basic poor modern lifestyle choices—can dramatically reduce sperm counts, as can exposure to some environmental toxins. Low sperm counts may presage a premature death, even among men in the prime of their lives who might seem otherwise healthy. “Sperm count decline is the canary in the coal mine,” says Levine. “There is something very wrong in the environment.” Which means there may be something very wrong with men.
Why Johnny Can’t BreedThe study of sperm has always been murky. In 1677, the Dutch draper and amateur scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek collected his semen immediately after having sex with his wife, examined it under a microscope of his own creation and saw millions of wriggling, tiny “animalcules” swimming in the seminal fluid. The Dutchman was the first person to observe human sperm cells, though he insisted that the sperm alone made an embryo that was merely nourished by the female egg and ovaries. Van Leeuwenhoek was simply following the example of classical thinkers like Aristotle, who believed female partners at most provided a fertile bed of soil in which the seed provided by a man could germinate and flower into a child. It wouldn’t be until the 19th century that the true roles of the sperm and the egg were finally sorted out.All those wriggling “swimmers” van Leeuwenhoek saw are what you would see if you magnified the sample of a healthy fertile man. A sperm cell is built for one thing: motion. Its torpedo-like head is a nugget of DNA containing the 23 chromosomes the male partner contributes to his future child, connected to a long tail or flagellum that propels the sperm to the egg, all running on the cellular rocket fuel of fructose, which is in the semen. Most sperm will never come close to an egg—while a fertile man ejaculates 20 million to 300 million sperm per milliliter of semen, only a few dozen might reach their destination, and only one can drill through the egg’s membrane and achieve conception. The chemical makeup of the vagina is actively hostile to sperm, which can only survive because semen contains alkaline substances that offset the acidic environment. That’s the paradox of sperm counts—although one healthy sperm is enough to make a baby, it takes tens of millions of sperm to beat the odds, which means that significant declines in sperm counts will eventually degrade overall male fertility. Notes Swan: “Even a relatively small change in the mean sperm count has a big impact on the percentage of men who will be classified as infertile or subfertile”—meaning a reduced level of fertility that makes it harder to conceive.
The fears about male infertility go beyond the stuff of dry science. “It’s the virility and fertility dilemma,” says Sharon Covington, an infertility therapist in Maryland. “How a man sees himself, and how the world sees him as a man, is often tied to his ability to impregnate a woman.” So perhaps it’s not surprising that the argument over how much sperm counts are declining—if they are declining—has been less a courteous scientific debate than a ferocious battle that has gone on for more than two decades.
This war began in Denmark, in 1990, when Danish pediatric endocrinologist Niels Skakkebaek began looking into male reproductive health. For years, he had been troubled by the rise in testicular cancer, as well as an increase in the number of boys with malformed testes. He thought assessing sperm quality and quantity might give him a clue to what was happening to his patients.
In 1992, Skakkebaek and colleagues reviewed all the published studies of sperm counts from around the world. (Sperm counts are done by tallying the number of sperm cells in one microliter of semen and then multiplying by 10,000 to estimate the total sperm in a milliliter—not dissimilar from the way police try to estimate the size of a large crowd from a geographic sample.) They calculated that the average sperm count in 1940 was about 113 million per milliliter of semen, and that by 1990 it had fallen to 66 million. In addition, they saw a threefold increase in the number of men with a sperm count below 20 million, the point at which infertility becomes a serious risk.Skakkebaek’s 1992 paper raised concern about the ability of the human species to continue reproducing itself, but skeptics immediately attacked, questioning the reliability of the original sperm studies the analysis was based on. The studies drew from very different groups of men of varying age and fertility. (Sperm count tends to decline with age, and men who gave a semen sample in a visit to a fertility clinic can reasonably be expected to have a lower count than, say, healthy men selected as donors for a sperm bank.) Some scientists believe older and less precise techniques for sperm counting may have artificially inflated the sperm levels of our fathers and grandfathers, which would make the drop to current counts appear steeper than it is.That’s why the new meta-analysis is so important. Swan, Levine and their international colleagues carefully sorted through more than 7,500 peer-reviewed papers before narrowing their search to 185 papers involving 43,000 men from around the world. By excluding studies before 1973, they cut out some of the less reliable older measurements, and they discarded any studies of men with known fertility complications or who were smokers, since smoking lowers sperm count. It’s not perfect—no meta-analysis is—but this evidence is the best we currently have, and the conclusions are disturbing. “The community is coming around on this,” says Eisenberg. “There have been some good counterarguments about sperm-level decline, but this paper really puts a lot of those arguments to bed.”Environmental CastrationProving that sperm levels are dropping has been difficult enough, and teasing out the cause is even tougher. Obesity, which has risen dramatically in Western countries while sperm counts have supposedly dropped, is linked to poor semen quality, as is physical inactivity. A 2013 study of American college students found that men who exercised more than 15 hours a week had sperm counts 73 percent higher than men who exercised less than five hours a week. And men who watched 20 or more hours of TV a week had much lower sperm counts than those who watched little to no TV. Stress is also a risk factor, as is alcohol use, which is on an upswing in the U.S., and drug use, which is increasing thanks to the opioid epidemic. Some scientists have theorized that electromagnetic fields from devices like cellphones could degrade semen quality, leading to weak and immobile sperm. Even heat can play a role. We know for certain that high temperatures can kill sperm, which is why the testicles are outside the body, keeping them up to 5.4 degrees cooler. Researchers know that birth rates decline nine months after a heat wave, leading some infertility experts to believe that climate change may actually be a factor in sperm count decline.Age also matters. In a recent study, Laura Dodge of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center looked at thousands of attempts at in vitro fertilization (IVF) performed in the Boston area and tried to gauge the impact of both male and female age on success. Female age remained the dominant factor, but male age factored in as well—women under the age of 30 with a male partner between 40 and 42 were significantly less likely to give birth than those whose male partner was between 30 and 35. That dovetails with other research showing that as men age, their sperm suffers increasing numbers of mutations, which in turn can make it slightly more likely that their children will be born with disorders like autism and schizophrenia. Older mothers may get the blame for infertility, but a new study found that new fathers in the U.S. are on average nearly four years older than they were in 1972, while almost 9 percent of new American fathers are over 40, double the percentage from 45 years ago. “We tell men that age is not an issue, but now we know that the male biological clock is real,” says Fisch.So is it simply modern life itself—obesity, inactivity, stress, cellphones, even older parenthood—that’s driving down sperm levels? It’s the beginning of an answer, but not the full one. Tobacco use definitely hurts sperm counts, yet smoking has fallen significantly in the U.S. That’s one reason a growing band of researchers have come to suspect the influence of toxins in the environment—specifically, endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in compounds like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.The theory is straightforward enough: These chemicals mimic the effect of the feminizing hormone estrogen and can interfere with masculinizing hormones like testosterone. The chemicals, which are found in many plastics throughout the environment, may be rewiring the sensitive male reproductive system, eroding sperm quality and quantity and even contributing to the sort of testicular disorders that first alarmed Skakkebaek years ago. The production of sperm is tightly regulated by the body’s hormones, and so any interference with those hormones—say, through exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals—could make itself felt first through damage to sperm quantity or quality. “You could still have sperm, but [levels] might be significantly lower than your father’s,” says Germaine Louis, the director and senior investigator at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.Most of the evidence for how these chemicals affect sperm comes from animal studies. A 2011 study found that mice who received daily BPA injections had lower sperm counts and testosterone levels than mice who received saline injections. A startling study from 2016 of fish in U.S. wildlife refuges in the Northeast found that 60 to 100 percent of all the male smallmouth bass studied had eggs growing in their testes—a startling feminization—which researchers linked to endocrine disrupters in the waters. Other studies have shown that phthalates appear to disrupt the masculinization of young lab rats. Animal models aren’t perfect, but as University of Texas toxicologist Andrea Gore notes, “the biology of reproduction is incredibly similar in all mammals. We are all vertebrates, and we have the same reproductive organs and processes that develop similarly with the same hormones.”Scientists can’t expose humans to endocrine disrupters in a controlled experiment, but some recent research has found associations between exposure to BPA and phthalates in the world, and declining sperm counts and male infertility in adults. A 2010 study of Chinese factory workers by De-Kun Li at Kaiser Permanente found that increasing levels of BPA in urine were significantly linked with decreased sperm count and quality, even among men who were exposed to levels of BPA comparable to men in the general American population. Another study from 2014 followed about 500 couples trying to conceive and found that phthalate exposure among men was tied to reduced fertility. These findings are all associations, which means that while exposure to endocrine disrupters is more likely to be found in men suffering from reduced fertility, it doesn’t mean that the chemicals themselves are definitively the cause. But the studies are stacking up. “For some of the endocrine disrupters like phthalates, the basic evidence is strong that they affect reproductive health,” says Louis, who carried out the phthalates study.Even more concerning, but harder to prove, is the damage endocrine disrupters may be doing in utero. As a fetus develops in a mother’s uterus, it is barraged by hormones and other chemicals that sculpt development. That includes the male reproductive system—testicles are formed in the womb, and although sperm levels can be altered in adulthood, they seem to be largely set before a boy is born. That means we could see sperm levels continue to decline for years, as boys who were exposed to endocrine disrupters before birth reach reproductive age and run into problems trying to have children of their own. “This trend hasn’t turned around, and it’s not going to turn around on its own,” says Swan, who has been studying the effects of endocrine disrupters for decades. “We don’t have a lot of time to lose.”The Baby Un-BoomIf this is a crisis, why is the medical establishment still arguing over the accuracy of statistical methods that approximate sperm levels from a variety pack of studies? Trying to figure out what is happening to sperm levels isn’t like trying to create an HIV vaccine. Researchers could follow a cohort of representative men from early adulthood through their reproductive years, taking regular semen samples under the same conditions and tracking lifestyle and environmental factors, including exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Such long-term studies aren’t easy or cheap, but somehow we’ve managed to pull them off for certain illnesses, like cardiovascular disease and cancer. The future of the human race—whether it has one—would seem to qualify as an important topic to explore in depth. “Why are we messing about with this?” says professor Allan Pacey, a male fertility expert at the University of Sheffield. “Let’s just answer the question.”A major, comprehensive study of semen quality has never been funded, however. Doctors are reluctant to even ask men for semen samples, and most men seem reluctant to give one—even though, as Eisenberg wryly notes, “it’s a lot more pleasant for the patient than a blood draw.”
“Male infertility has been ignored for 30 years,” says Christopher Barratt, a professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Dundee in Scotland. “What we understand can be written on a postage stamp.”The average man knows much, much less. Few men could even name the medical specialty that covers male reproductive health—it’s urology—and fewer still have ever seen a urologist, given that there are fewer than 12,000 of them in the U.S., about one-third the number of OB-GYNs in the country. Aside from a few online forums, there are no real support systems for men with infertility issues. Many men lack basic knowledge about risk factors for infertility. A 2016 Canadian study found that men could identify only about 50 percent of the potential risks to sperm production, largely missing out on known threats like obesity and frequent bicycling. “Most men just assume that when they want to have children they’ll be able to,” says Phyllis Zelkowitz, the director of research at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and the lead author on the study. “But that isn’t the case for a certain number of people.”The continued ignorance of male infertility is, in its way, another form of male privilege. Pretending that pregnancy is almost entirely a female responsibility means that women are forced to carry the burden and the blame when it goes wrong, while men, who are just as vital to healthy conception, rarely worry about how their lifestyles impact their own fertility or their possible children. “Women will often be sent to invasive, expensive procedures for fertility before a sperm test is ever done,” says Resolve’s Collura.So men are getting off free while their female partners put themselves through painful and expensive fertility treatments. Well, not exactly. The constant production of new sperm cells makes semen highly sensitive to toxins and disease, making it an ideal surrogate for male health—“like blood pressure,” as Louis puts it—beyond what it might signal for fertility. Poor sperm levels and infertility are a clear sign that men’s health is failing. One 2015 study found that men diagnosed with infertility have a higher risk of developing health issues like heart disease, diabetes and alcohol abuse, while another connected infertility to cancer. “Semen quality isn’t just about a couple getting pregnant,” says Louis. “There is increasing evidence at the population level that men with diminished semen quality die earlier and have more chronic diseases. This is as important to health as any disease state.”That male reproductive health goes mostly ignored in the face of those concerns is a striking example of what Cynthia Daniels, a political scientist at Rutgers University and the author of Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction , calls the “paradox of male privilege.” A society that values men over women would presumably pour money and resources into determining exactly what is happening to sperm counts and reproductive health. But that would risk confirming that men, who are socially conditioned to think of themselves as indestructible, are in fact vulnerable—and vulnerable in that part of themselves most vital to manhood. At a moment when other talismans of masculinity, like the ability to financially support a family, are under assault, acknowledging the risk to reproduction may feel even more threatening to men. “Recognizing the male reproductive health problem unravels the notion of who men are and how they achieve masculinity,” says Daniels. “It seems to be more important to protect our norms of masculinity and traditional gender relations than it is to address the real health needs of men.”
One way to accomplish that goal is to enable men to take responsibility for their reproductive health. That’s what Greg Sommer, the chief scientific officer of Sandstone Diagnostics, is trying to do with Trak, a kit men can use to evaluate their sperm levels. It’s one of several similar do-it-yourself sperm testing services that offer men the chance to assess their own fertility without stepping inside a doctor’s office. That approach is more than a mere convenience because men are significantly less likely to go to the doctor than women, especially men in their prime reproductive years, when their health is otherwise likely to be good.Real, substantive change is needed from the medical and funding communities to address the male infertility crisis. It may be true, as skeptics countered after the publication of Swan and Levine’s meta-analysis, that we’re a long way from declining sperm counts heralding the end of the human race, at least as portrayed in works of pop art like The Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale . Millions of men and women are having children every day—even if an increasing number need artificial help like IVF. Yet more and more countries find themselves unable to raise their fertility rates above the level needed to replace their population, leading one prominent demographer to prophesy that the world has already reached “peak child.”It’s difficult not to wonder and worry about what will come next. “It’s an inconvenient message, but the species is under threat, and that should be a wake-up call to all of us,” says Skakkebaek. “If this doesn’t change in a generation, it is going to be an enormously different society for our grandchildren and their children.”Assuming, of course, they can have them.
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