In a new analysis of studies completed over the course of the last 50 years, it seems commonly used pesticides in our food and plant supply are contributing to a sharp decline in sperm count and concentration worldwide, with overall levels dropping around 50 percent. The analysis, published this week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, examined 25 studies completed over the span of five decades, finding that men’s swimmers are suffering due to the presence of these pesticides.
The studies looked specifically at the use of two insecticides commonly used on the crops of foods we eat and in lawns, gardens, and the like. The results are staggering, with senior study author Melissa Perry, dean of the College of Public Health at George Mason University, telling CNN: “Over the course of 50 years, sperm concentration has fallen about 50 percent around the world. … While there are likely many more contributing causes, our study demonstrates a strong association between two common insecticides — organophosphates and N-methyl carbamates — and the decline of sperm concentration.”
While Perry notes that “what is not known is the culprit” of such a stark decline in sperm count and concentration, it seems the widespread presence of these two pesticides isn’t helping matters much. Organophosphates are the main components of nerve gas, herbicides, pesticides and insecticides, and are also used to create plastics and solvents. “They are widely used in agriculture on the crops we eat,” Perry told CNN. “We use them in structural applications within homes and buildings, apartment buildings, as well as for ornamental lawn upkeep. They’re available for consumer purchase so organophosphate exposures have been demonstrated to be relatively widespread.”
CNN notes that N-methyl carbamates are “structurally and operationally similar to organophosphates, killing insects by damaging their brains and nervous systems.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes these insecticides are applied to a “variety of field, fruit, and vegetable crops for control of beetles, borers, nematodes, weevils and similar pests.”
Men who work in agriculture are more likely to be exposed to these two elements, which could impact their sperm concentration more directly than men who have less exposure. A low sperm count can cause fertility issues, while sperm concentration “is an important measure of sperm quality for comparing men across studies because it adjusts for variability in semen volume,” as Perry told CNN. The analysis notes that these pesticides seem to directly interfere with sexual hormones, damage cells in the testes, and alter neurotransmitters in the brain that impact sperm production, none of which is good news for men who might want to conceive or who are actively trying to.
“Sperm is an incredibly sensitive endpoint when it comes to overall health for men,” Perry said. “My best advice is to be aware of insecticides in one’s environment and to recognize that avoiding unnecessary insecticide exposure is a good thing, especially if you’re planning on a family and wanting to conceive children.” Peeling and thoroughly washing produce with soap and warm water can help minimize exposure, as well as choosing organic and/or avoiding foods washed with detergents or chemicals wherever possible.