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Fossil Fuels

Guys, Guard Your Gonads! Fossil Fuel Crud Is Making You Infertile

People ignore the effects of fossil fuel pollution because it is an inconvenient truth. Will they feel the same if they discover it leads to infertility?

According to pop culture, being a man is all about sexual potency. The alpha male has his choice of mates and is presumed to be the source of the best genetic material for propagating the herd. It’s Darwin’s theory of evolution in action. But what would happen if the alpha male in a herd of bison, or elephants, or gorillas suddenly became incapable of fertilizing an ovum? What happens to the great “survival of the fittest” paradigm then?

A new study published in the journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology claims that the crud spewed into the air when we burn fossil fuels is partly responsible for an observed decrease in human fertility that appears to date back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when first wood, then coal, then oil, and then methane became the principle energy sources for humanity. The rise of average global temperatures began at about the sames time, which hardly seems to be a coincidence.

No matter how you look at it, burning fossil fuels is killing the human species just as surely as if we shut the garage doors, fired up a ’53 Chevy, and sat there with the engine running for an hour. One process is fairly rapid and the other is quite slow, but the result is pretty much the same.

Here’s the abstract from that study:

“A severe decline in child births has occurred over the past half century, which will lead to considerable population declines, particularly in industrialized regions. A crucial question is whether this decline can be explained by economic and behavioural factors alone, as suggested by demographic reports, or to what degree biological factors are also involved.

“Here, we discuss data suggesting that human reproductive health is deteriorating in industrialized regions. Widespread infertility and the need for assisted reproduction due to poor semen quality and/or oocyte failure are now major health issues. Other indicators of declining reproductive health include a worldwide increasing incidence in testicular cancer among young men and alterations in twinning frequency. There is also evidence of a parallel decline in rates of legal abortions, revealing a deterioration in total conception rates.

“Subtle alterations in fertility rates were already visible around 1900, and most industrialized regions now have rates below levels required to sustain their populations. We hypothesize that these reproductive health problems are partially linked to increasing human exposures to chemicals originating directly or indirectly from fossil fuels. If the current infertility epidemic is indeed linked to such exposures, decisive regulatory action underpinned by unconventional, interdisciplinary research collaborations will be needed to reverse the trends.”

The Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Science says some of the products formed during combustion of fossil fuels are shown in the image below:

Image credit: Penn State

According to The Guardian, the study focused on Denmark, but the trends in Danish society are also seen in other industrialized nations. One in 10 Danish children are born with assisted reproduction and more than 20% of men never have children, according to the researchers. Experts warn the trend could lead to an unbalanced demographic with too few younger people to support the older generations.

“We have to realize that we know all too little about infertility in the population so the next step forward would really be to find out why so many young couples do not have children,” says Niels Erik Skakkebæk, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study.

Falling birthrates are often attributed to cultural and socio-economic factors, such as the increase in access to planned parenthood, contraception, and abortion, and the changing role of women in society. For example, education and participation in the workforce have delayed childbearing for many females. But data shows that pregnancies were already declining before the introduction of “the pill,” overall abortion numbers have decreased over the years, and unintended pregnancy loss has been increasing by 1 to 2% a year since 1990.

An expanding body of research shows increasing rates of human infertility due to biological reasons, including 74,000 yearly cases of testicular cancer, insufficient sperm and egg quality, premature puberty in young women, and an increase in the number of congenital malformations in male infant genitalia.

Such a trend cannot be explained genetically because evolution takes place over longer periods of time and more generations, so Skakkebæk and his colleagues are urging the scientific community to look at the impact of environmental exposure to toxic chemical pollutants from fossil fuels which have been around since the Industrial Revolution.

Fossil fuels are ubiquitous and their waste products have been found in people’s blood, urine, semen, placentas, breast milk, and fatty tissues. Many of those pollutants are endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the body’s hormonal systems and have a negative effect on reproductive health.

“We know from numerous experimental animal studies that plastics, chemicals, and so forth can cause problems in animal reproduction,” says Skakkebæk. “We cannot do such exposure studies in humans, that would not be ethical, but we know enough from animal studies to be concerned.”

Studies show that, for example, rats and mice undergo genetic changes affecting their reproductive abilities when exposed to endocrine disruption by toxic chemicals. Research on humans is still sparse, but some studies have shown that endocrine-disrupting chemicals might be substantially linked to male reproductive diseases. Animal data has shown female and male reproductivity is affected differently with the same levels of exposure, and that early gestation is a particularly sensitive time for these chemicals to have a disruptive effect.

The researchers acknowledge the links between pollution and infertility need to be systematically examined and assessed for causality. Changes in lifestyle such as less physical activity, smoking, obesity, alcohol consumption, and changes in diet also may play a role. Nonetheless, what should be abundantly obvious to the most casual observer is that with the advent of the industrial age, humanity decided progress required treating the Earth as a communal toilet where all waste products were allowed to accumulate largely unchecked.

There is a joke that says the highest point in Florida is a landfill. That is not strictly accurate, but from the Bok Tower in Lake Wales, which is one of the highest points in the Sunshine State, the view in the middle distance includes a landfill that is nearly as high.

Our political leaders, their pockets heavy with lucrative campaign contributions, are content to look the other way. Greedy Joe Manchin of the once great state of West Virginia, has experienced a cash bonanza from industry as he stubbornly refuses to consider taking bold action to address global warming. Gordon Gekko captured the essence of modern society when he intoned, “Greed is good.” In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is deadly, a lesson we are about to learn as the end game of the Industrial Revolution enters its final stages.

So gird up your loins, fellas. Buying a bigger truck isn’t going to save you from the scourge of infertility. As Walt Kelly taught us years ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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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. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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