Phthalate Exposure Threatens Human Survival

phthalate affects fertility

Story at-a-glance -

  • Total sperm counts in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand dropped by nearly 60 percent between 1973 and 2013 and there’s no evidence to suggest this downward trend is leveling of
  • Reduction in sperm production is a warning sign that men’s health is in serious jeopardy, as poor semen quality has been linked to a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and early death
  • Along with sperm, men’s testosterone levels have dropped in recent decades as well, and exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in utero and beyond appears to be a driving factor
  • Environmental estrogens such as phthalates have generational effects, which is why males are successively becoming increasingly more sterile with each passing generation
  • Studies have also linked phthalate exposure during early childhood with delayed puberty in girls, while other research warns that phthalates in makeup and personal care products can trigger early menopause

By Dr. Mercola

Infertility has become increasingly pervasive in recent decades. In “Sperm Count Zero,”1 GQ Magazine discusses this troubling fact, noting the situation has become so dire that “within a generation we may lose the ability to reproduce entirely.”

The article highlights research2,3 published last year, which found total sperm counts in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand dropped by nearly 60 percent between 1973 and 2013. (South American, Asian and African men had no noticeable decline, although this discrepancy could be due to the smaller sample sizes obtained from those countries.)

The paper in question was a meta-analysis of 185 studies and the largest of its kind. In a nutshell, men in many areas of the world are producing less semen overall, and the semen they do produce contains fewer sperm. What’s worse, the researchers found no evidence to suggest this downward trend is leveling off. As noted by GQ:

“Sperm counts went from 99 million sperm per milliliter of semen in 1973 to 47 million per milliliter in 2011, and the decline has been accelerating. Would 40 more years — or fewer — bring us all the way to zero?”

Aside from the implications this has on the human species as a whole, reduction in sperm production is also a warning sign that men’s health is in serious jeopardy, as poor semen quality has been linked to a number of other health issues, including a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and early death. Researchers also warn that men are becoming increasingly less male overall.

Testosterone Levels Are Dropping Too

Along with sperm, men’s testosterone levels have dropped in recent decades as well, and exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in utero and beyond appears to be a driving factor.4 GQ reports:5

“One of the most significant markers of an organism's sex is something called anogenital distance (AGD) — the measurement between the anus and the genitals. Male AGD is typically twice the length of female, a much more dramatic difference than height or weight or musculature.

Lower testosterone leads to a shorter AGD, and a measurement lower than the median correlates to a man being seven times as likely to be subfertile and gives him a greater likelihood of having undescended testicles, testicular tumors, and a smaller penis.6,7

‘What you are seeing in a number of systems, other developmental systems, is that the sex differences are shrinking,’ [reproductive epidemiologist at Mount Sinai and one of the lead authors, Shanna H.] Swan told me. Men are producing less sperm. They're also becoming less male.”

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Wreak Havoc With Male Gender

GQ also interviews 82-year-old Dr. Niels E. Skakkebæk, a pediatric endocrinologist at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark. In Denmark, 1 in 5 men cannot father children, and Skakkebæk has been investigating the country’s growing infertility trend since the 1970s, when he discovered infertile male patients with an identical yet curious abnormality he’d never seen before.

“What he found was a new form of precursor cells for testicular cancer, a once rare disease whose incidence had doubled,” GQ writes. “Moreover, these precursor cells had begun developing before the patient was even born.” In other words, Skakkebæk discovered that testicular cancer actually originates in utero.

What’s more, he suspected that if testes were not developing properly, the likelihood of something else misdeveloping was also high. Skakkebæk eventually came up with the name “testicular dysgenesis syndrome” to describe a collection of reproductive problems that appear to originate in fetal development. These include:

  • Hypospadias (a birth defect in which the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis instead of at the end)
  • Cryptorchidism (undescended testicles)
  • Oligospermia (low sperm count) and poor semen quality
  • Testicular cancer

The cause of these problems? So-called gender-bending endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The chemical revolution foisted thousands of chemicals upon the population, and many of them are now being found to have significant health impacts. Among the most pernicious are plasticizing chemicals such as phthalates,8 which makes plastic soft and pliable.

Phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol-A are estrogen mimickers, and when male fetuses are overexposed in utero, it permanently alters their reproductive system, rendering them less male and more female.

In adults, the more phthalates a man has in his system, the lower his testosterone level will be, and the lower his sperm count. Other recent research9 also confirms that environmental estrogens have generational effects, which is why males are successively becoming increasingly more sterile with each passing generation.

Other Lifestyle Factors That Affect Male Fertility

Other environmental and lifestyle factors that impact male fertility include:

  • Other toxic exposures such as PFOA, NPEs, bovine growth hormones (sometimes given to cows to boost milk production), MSG, fluoride and pesticides such as methoxychlor and vinclozolin
  • Medications such as statins and SSRI antidepressants10
  • Poor diet and common vitamin deficiencies, including vitamin D deficiency
  • Electromagnetic field (EMF) exposures
  • Obesity and/or inactivity

For a list of strategies that can help treat infertility and boost fertility naturally, see “Skyrocketing Male Infertility May Threaten Mankind’s Survival.”

Common Sources of Phthalates

There are approximately a dozen different types of phthalates, and they can enter your body either through ingestion, inhalation and/or through your skin.11,12 Several studies have linked inhaled exposure to phthalates with asthma and respiratory allergic reactions.13,14

A study from Columbia University was the first to demonstrate an association between childhood asthma and prenatal exposure to phthalates. Children born to mothers exposed to higher levels of butylbenzyl phthalate and di-n-butyl phthalate during pregnancy had a greater than 70 percent increased risk of developing asthma between age 5 and 11.15 Phthalates of various kinds are found in, among other things:

Toys

Fast food packaging

Plastic hoses and medical tubing

Raincoats and other rubber items

Shower curtains

Vinyl flooring and wall coverings

Lubricants and adhesives

Detergents

Beauty products such as makeup, nail polish, hair spray and shampoo

Although most phthalates have a half-life of 24 to 48 hours and are excreted from your body within 96 hours, studies have detected a toxic load of phthalates in urine, blood and breast milk, courtesy of repeated (probably daily) exposure. Since the chemicals are fat soluble, they’re stored in your fat cells and, when released, contribute to the level of phthalates found in your urine.16

Phthalates are particularly prevalent in personal care products, which is why women tend to have higher levels in their system than men. Higher levels are also evident in people who regularly eat fast food, as the food is packaged in plastic and/or nonstick wrappers.17

Other Research Linking Phthalates to Male and Female Reproductive Problems

The glands of your endocrine system and the hormones they release influence almost every cell, organ and function of your body, which is why endocrine disrupters such as phthalates can have such dire consequences. Your endocrine system is instrumental in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function and metabolism, as well as sexual function and reproductive processes.18

In a study led by environmental health scientist Richard Pilsner, Ph.D., at the University of Massachusetts, researchers determined that a father’s preconception exposure to phthalates led to a pronounced decrease in blastocyst quality.19

Once fertilization of the egg is achieved, the zygote begins to divide or cleave.20 This happens repeatedly in the first three to five days of conception. At this point the embryo becomes a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. It is at this stage in vitro fertilization is attempted.

The study evaluated immature eggs from 50 couples undergoing in vitro fertilization. There were 761 oocytes (immature eggs) in the study, of which only 184 developed well enough to be transferred to the prospective mother. The researchers found an inverse association between men who had high levels of phthalates in their urine and the development of high quality blastocysts.21

Studies have also linked phthalate exposure during early childhood with delayed puberty in girls,22 while other research23 warns that phthalates in makeup and personal care products can trigger early menopause — effectively shortening the reproductive age of women from both ends.

Women with the highest levels of phthalates in their urine began menopause 2.3 years earlier than women with the lowest levels. However, some may enter menopause as much as 15 years earlier. This can have severe consequences for a woman’s fertility, especially as more women are now waiting to bear children until their mid- to late 30s or even later.

Other Health Effects Associated With Phthalate Exposure

Scientists have also linked phthalate exposure to:24,25,26,27

Attention deficit disorder

Breast cancer

Obesity

Type 2 diabetes

Lowered IQ

Autism spectrum disorder

Neurodevelopmental issues

Behavioral issues

Imbalanced growth hormone28

Liver cancer

Altered thyroid function29

Miscarriage

Phthalates Affecting Wildlife

Phthalates are also affecting the reproductive capacity of wildlife, having been found in polar bears, deer, whales and bottlenose dolphins, just to name a few. A 2008 report by ChemTRUST,30 which focused on the ill effects of various endocrine disruptors on wildlife, are also relevant for humans since all vertebrates have similar sex hormone receptors.

Their paper lists the symptoms found in each of the numerous species tested, which includes testicular cancer, hermaphrodites, genital deformations, low sperm counts and infertility. Again, these adverse effects are caused by phthalates’ ability to reduce testosterone synthesis by interfering with an enzyme needed to produce the male hormone.

Other changes in wildlife populations that have been traced back to endocrine disrupting chemicals include:31

Baltic seal population reduction

Eggshell thinning in birds of prey

Alligator population decrease in a polluted lake

Frog population decrease

Male sex organs on female marine animals such as whelks and snails

Negative effects on fish reproduction and development

Most recently, researchers found 71 percent of bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, have phthalate metabolites in their urine.32 As noted by the authors:33

“For the first time, phthalate metabolites have been detected in the urine of wild bottlenose dolphins. Parent phthalate compounds are common additives to plastics and other products …

Because dolphins are sensitive gauges of their surroundings, detection of phthalate exposure in these dolphins suggests some level of environmental contamination. Additional research is needed to determine the source of their exposure …”

Fertility Treatments May Soon Become the Norm

GQ concludes “Sperm Count Zero” with the dire prediction that childbearing may soon become a privilege afforded only to those with the financial means to undergo fertility treatments, and the possibility of technological advancements eliminating the need for sperm altogether, ushering in a brand-new era where women may carry the entire burden of procreation of the species:34

“It's true that fertility treatments have already given men with extremely low sperm counts the chance to be fathers. Indeed, by looking at their cases, we can glimpse what our low-sperm-count future might look like.

We know that it will be arduous to conceive, and expensive — so expensive that having children may no longer be an option available to all couples. A fertility-treatment-dependent future is also unlikely to produce a birth rate anywhere near current levels …

As long as we hover somewhere above Sperm Count Zero, and with an assist from modern medicine, we have a shot. Men will continue to be essential to the survival of the species. The problem with innovation, though, is that it never stops.

A new technology known as IVG — in vitro gametogenesis — is showing early promise at turning embryonic stem cells into sperm. In 2016, Japanese scientists created baby mice by fertilizing normal mouse eggs with sperm created via IVG. The stem cells in question were taken from female mice. There was no need for any males.”

Protect Your Family’s Reproductive Health By Reducing Your Exposure to Phthalates

Considering the generational effects of phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals, you’d be wise to take proactive steps to limit your exposure, and that goes for both men and women. This is particularly important for the younger generations. Although it's virtually impossible to steer clear of all sources, you can minimize your exposure by keeping some key principles in mind.

Avoid plastic food containers and plastic wrap. Store food and drinks in glass containers instead.

Avoid plastic children’s toys. Use toys made of natural substances, such as wood and organic materials.

Read labels on your cosmetics and avoid those containing phthalates.

Avoid products labeled with “fragrance” as this catch-all term may include hidden phthalates which are commonly used to stabilize the scent and extend the life of the product. Avoid air fresheners.

Use personal care products stored in glass containers.

Read labels looking for PVC-free products, including children’s lunch boxes, backpacks and storage containers.

Do not microwave food in plastic containers or covered in plastic wrap.

Frequently vacuum and dust rooms with vinyl blinds, wallpaper, flooring and furniture that may contain phthalates as the chemical collects in dust and is easily ingested by children.

Ask your pharmacist if your prescription pills are coated to control when they dissolve as the coating may contain phthalates.

Eat mostly fresh, raw whole foods. Packaging is often a source of phthalates.

Buy products in glass bottles instead of plastic or cans, and use glass baby bottles instead of plastic. Breastfeed exclusively for the first year if you can to avoid plastic nipples and bottles all together.

Remove your fruit and vegetables from plastic bags immediately after coming home from the grocery store and wash them before storage.

Cash register receipts are heat printed and often contain BPA. Handle the receipt as little as possible and ask the store to switch to BPA-free receipts.

Use natural cleaning products or make your own.

Replace feminine hygiene products with safer alternatives.

Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets; make your own to reduce static cling.

Check your home’s tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary.

Teach your children not to drink from the garden hose, as many are made from plasticizers such phthalates.