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Your Sperm Counts: Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Men’s Health

Every day we breathe, eat, drink, touch, and absorb endocrine-disrupting chemicals. They are in plastics, pesticides, herbicides, fragrances, furniture, electronics, personal care products, building materials, food, food packaging, and many other items we come in contact with daily. And they are impacting our health in critical ways.

In the early 1900s, it was believed by many that chemistry would lead the way to health. The development of synthetic chemical compounds would ignite a race to find “solutions” to dilemmas such as pests and disease. Since World War II, 80,000 new synthetic chemicals have been manufactured and released in the environment. 

Of the hundreds of thousands of manufactured chemicals, approximately 1,400 may have endocrine-acting properties. Biomonitoring, the measurement of chemicals in body fluids and tissues, reveals that nearly 100 percent of humans have endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in their bodies. And, in addition to the known EDCs, there are countless suspected EDCs or chemicals that have never been tested.

Today, there is considerable evidence that male reproductive function is declining in human and wildlife populations. In men, sperm counts have declined as much as 50 percent over the last half-century in certain regions with quality declining as well. Several chemicals, most notably phthalates, are associated with a variety of adverse effects on the male urogenital tract, including cryptorchidism, hypospadias, prostate disease, and testicular cancer.

However, there is still much to be studied and learned about how these synthetic chemicals intricately affect our health. Traditional research frameworks do not necessarily account for exposure over time that mimics our natural environment, or during the critical periods of development when EDCs are even more harmful. Neither do they necessarily look at each organ and the effects the various EDCs have on them. But, for now, we know enough to stay clear of EDCs to the best of our ability for our family’s health and the planet.

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But First, What Is the Endocrine System?

The endocrine system is a network of glands and organs that produce, store, and secrete hormones. All mammals, birds, fish, and many other types of living organisms have this hormone-regulating system that releases hormones into the bloodstream or the fluid surrounding the cells. 

When functioning normally, the endocrine system works with other systems to regulate your body’s healthy development and function throughout life. Hormones are produced by glands and sent into the bloodstream to the various tissues in the body. They send signals to those tissues to tell them what they are supposed to do. 

The receptors in various organs and tissues recognize and respond to the hormones, controlling many biological processes including blood sugar control, growth and function of reproductive organs, and energy production. When the glands do not produce the right amount of hormones, diseases develop that can affect many aspects of life.

What Are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals? 

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are substances in the environment (air, soil, or water supply), food sources, personal care products, and manufactured products that interfere with the normal function of your body’s endocrine system

EDCs are estrogen-like and/or anti-androgenic compounds that disrupt and interfere with the production, release transport, metabolism, binding, or elimination of natural hormones in the body responsible for the maintenance of homeostasis and the regulation of developmental processes. They can alter the functions of the endocrine system, inhibit critical cellular processes, increase the risk of hormone-dependent malignancies, and may result in a wide array of adverse health effects.

Some EDCs act like “hormone mimics” and trick our body into thinking that they are hormones, while other EDCs block natural hormones from doing their job. Other EDCs can increase or decrease the levels of hormones in our blood by affecting how they are made, broken down, or stored in our bodies. And some EDCs can change how sensitive our bodies are to different hormones.

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How Do They Affect Men’s Health?

EDCs have been linked to numerous adverse human health outcomes including alterations in sperm quality and fertility, abnormalities in sex organs, endometriosis, early puberty, altered nervous system function, immune function, certain cancers, respiratory problems, metabolic issues, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, growth, neurological and learning disabilities, and more.

“Among the strongest associations between EDC exposures and adverse outcomes are those for reproductive development, physiology, and pathology,” according to the Endocrine Society. Exposure to EDCs is associated with male reproductive malfunctions including downward trends in semen quality and testosterone levels, and increased rates of testicular cancers. 

High EDC exposures during fetal development and childhood can have long-lasting health effects since there are periods where hormones regulate the formation and maturation of organs. These early-life exposures have been linked to developmental abnormalities and may increase the risk of a variety of diseases later in life. 

Various EDCs have been found to cross the placenta and become concentrated in the fetus’ circulation. Others can be transferred from mother to infant through breast milk. One U.S. study found that an average of 200 synthetic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants, according to IPEN. Alkylphenols, bisphenol, and phthalates are substantial components of many products that people come into contact with daily.

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Where Can EDCs Be Found?

Humans and wildlife are exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals every day. Environmental contamination of the food chain occurs in every stage from algae to humans. These exogenous compounds can arise from industrial and domestic effluents or agricultural and urban runoff. The general population continues to be exposed to EDCs through the ingestion of contaminated food, inhalation of contaminated air and dust, and skin contact. And some areas are subjected to greater risk due to geographical and cultural reasons.

EDCs can be found in household and personal care products, pesticides, herbicides, detergents, beverage and food storage containers, metal cans, epoxy resins, and more. Many textiles contain contaminants such as flame-retardants, including furniture and car upholstery. 

Although chronic exposure to EDCs takes place through skin contact or inhalation, the major source is food products. Some experimental studies assume that plastic packaging is the largest source of EDCs in the human diet. Bisphenol A (BPA) has been used extensively in the production of polycarbonate plastic, epoxy resin, food packaging, and lacquers for food cans. BPAs can leach from the inner lining of cans and microwave containers during the heating of food materials and beverages. 

Phthalates are ubiquitous industrial chemicals that are reported to adversely affect human reproductive outcomes. They are divided into two groups based on their molecular weight. The heavier compounds are used as plasticizers and are found in consumer products such as flooring and wall coverings, and medical devices. The lighter phthalates are used in personal care products as solvents and plasticizers for cellulose acetate. Ingestion, inhalation, and dermal contact are considered significant exposure routes for the general population. 

Phthalates are rapidly metabolized and interfere with androgen production. It is linked to genital abnormalities in boys, reduced sperm counts, decreased “male typical” play in boys, endometriosis, elements of metabolic disruption including obesity.

How to Avoid Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals, assuming you live in the modern world. They’re everywhere, especially in our homes. But, there are quite a few ways to remove many of these EDCs from your environment.

First thing’s first, remove plastics from your home. It is easiest to start with the kitchen as there is an abundance of plastic and chemicals from packaging to single-use plastic bags, and more. Your blender, melamine serving trays, plastic forks, plastic microwavable containers all count. Stay wary of items that claim to be “chemical-free.” And, when you’re ready to replace your furniture, seek out all-natural furniture companies that do not use these endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Non-organic produce and meat, as well as processed foods, can have pesticide residues. Whenever possible, choose organic for their additional nutritional content as well as to avoid consuming EDCs. And avoid canned goods. Many cans today say they are “BPA Free” and yet will have other plasticizers such as BPS that will yield the same endocrine-disrupting results.

Avoid products that contain EDCs or are packaged in containers that can leach EDCs, such as household chemicals, fabrics treated with flame retardants, cosmetics, lotions, products with fragrance, and anti-bacterial soaps. Look for all-natural, organic, and “phthalate-free” and “paraben-free” products.

Safely dispose of industrial chemicals and pesticides. They can easily be absorbed into the body through contact– think of your dog can bringing them in from the yard. They can also leach into the soil and groundwater, and make their way up the food chain by building up in fish, animals, and people.

Household dust can contain EDCs such as lead, flame retardants, and PCBs from weathering construction material or furniture. Dust and vacuum regularly to reduce the amount of EDCs that you inhale and ingest.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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