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Forever chemicals are destroying fertility among humans according to the latest research. So what are we doing about them?

Air Quality

Toxins In Environment Reduce Sperm Counts, Shrink Size Of Male Genitalia

Forever chemicals are destroying fertility among humans according to the latest research. So what are we doing about them?

All right, all right. Settle down. That headline is not click bait. It’s for real and yes, it does have something to do with clean technology because clean tech is all about reducing pollutants in the environment. We know the crud spewing into the atmosphere, flowing into rivers and oceans, and leaching into the ground is bad for us. We tolerate it because doing otherwise will have significant economic consequences. But we may not be able to ignore the problem much longer.

There are microplastics in the snow falling on the top of Kilimanjaro and in the sediment at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Fine particulates from burning fossil fuels get into our blood stream where they can cause cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. Slowly but surely, we are poisoning the very planet that sustains us and laughing all the way to the bank.

An overheated planet may cause the death of billions of people, yet we may not have to worry about that much longer because our ability to reproduce may soon be at an end. Is that too forceful a statement? Not according to Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist from the Icahn School of Medicine in New York. In a new book entitled Count Down, she warns that sperm counts in human males have fallen by nearly 60% since 1973. Unless the trend is reversed, they may fall to zero by 2045. The subtitle of Swan’s book sums things up rather succinctly: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race. The book is based on a study done by Swan and a team of researchers first published in 2017.

According to a report in The Guardian by Erin Brockovich — yes,  that Erin Brockovich — Swan writes, “In some parts of the world, the average twenty something woman today is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35.” In addition, a man today will have about half of the sperm count his grandfather had. “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival. It’s a global existential crisis,” she says.

The culprit is PFAS, a category of man-made chemicals known to scientists as “per and polyfluoroalkyl substances.” They are known to affect reproductive health but here’s the worst part. They do not break down in the environment, which is why they are known generally as “forever chemicals.” Swan’s research finds they aren’t just dramatically reducing semen quality, they are also shrinking penis size and volume of the testicles.

According to the EPA, “PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe, including in the United States since the 1940s. PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals. Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body — meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.”

That’s putting it mildly. The EPA adds that PFAS can be found in:

  • Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
  • Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
  • Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
  • Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
  • Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.

PFAS are used in products that have been treated to make them stain and water-repellent or nonstick including carpets, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging materials, and non-stick cookware. The word “packaging” should alarm you. Virtually everything we eat today comes in wrappers and containers containing PFAS. The plastic wrap on that pound of hamburger or salmon fillet you get from the supermarket is but one example.

“Scientists have found these substances in the blood of nearly all the people they tested in the US,” Brockovich writes. “No country or region on earth is untouched by PFAS contamination. It is a global problem. PFAS has been found in every corner of the globe. It is virtually present in the bodies of every human. It’s found in fish deep in the sea, and birds flying high in the sky. And it’s killing us, literally, by harming and attacking the very source of life: our reproductive capacities.” Men especially should be concerned. There is no more powerful aspect of masculinity than sexual prowess. Tell a man the size of his “equipment” is under threat and you are certain to get his attention.

So What Do We Do About It?

There once was a company whose motto was “Better living through chemistry.” It turns out, that was a lie. Maybe we didn’t know it then but now we do. So what are we going to do about it? This is the point where I tend to get a lot of people mad at me. The economic system we have chosen to use as the basis of our prosperity is utterly dependent on trivializing the negative impacts of human activities. Coal slag and nuclear waste are allowed to pile up next to rivers and streams. Wastes from factory farming become part of what we prosaically call “lagoons.” Crud from smokestacks and clouds of methane gas are allowed to escape into the atmosphere. Everything that industry does to degrade the environment comes with low or no costs attached.

Any effort to clean up our act is attacked as “government overreach.” We hear torrents of criticism about “job killing regulations,” as if any effort to rein in the destruction done by our economic system is an attack on Mom, apple pie, and the flag. The way forward is crystal clear. We must stop allowing waste products to degrade our planet. End of story. Full stop. To do so, we have to put a price on all forms of pollution. Doing so will have have a dramatic effect on commerce. So we will have to choose — life or death? There is no in between. So what’s it going to be?

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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