When people hear of chemicals, there is often a fairly negative response. Whether that be those present in the food we eat or the air we breathe, many of us tend to hesitate at the notion of putting chemicals in our body. And while it’s true that the vast majority of “chemicals” are actually beneficial and essential to life, there are many harmful ones in our everyday life as well, and many of those are ones we don’t even realize. Present in the plastic we use, in the food we eat, and even the makeup we put on our face, these harmful chemicals have an abundance of negative effects on our environment and bodies. From killing off plants and animals to increasing the development of allergies that didn’t exist before, they are seen to affect not only our development but the world around us. Yet, another effect that isn’t getting nearly enough attention is the devastating damage they are doing to our reproductive organs.
Many studies are finding that the combination of chemicals in our environment and our unhealthy lifestyle is causing severe effects on our ability to reproduce. Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, co-authored a study in 2017 that looked at how sperm counts have changed throughout the years. What she found was quite alarming—sperm counts in the West dropped 59% between 1973 and 2011. This means that at the rate that we’re going, sperm counts are set to reach zero in 2045. Yes, you heard that right: zero. If this does happen, then infertility rates will go through the roof and people will no longer be able to reproduce. So, why aren’t more people talking about it?
We have already been seeing decreasing fertility rates for decades, with the global fertility rate falling from 5.06 births per woman to 2.4 between 1964 and 2018. With all of the advances in technology and medicine, you would assume the rates would do just the opposite. However, currently about half of the world’s countries have fertility rates that are below the population replacement level of 2.1, with signs of it decreasing even more in the future.
The chemicals also aren’t only affecting the sperm counts. Research has confirmed that endocrine disruptors, which mimic or block the actions of hormones, are present in some cosmetic products. Endocrine disruptors interfere with the endocrine system and can cause cancer, birth defects, and other issues. New research specifically looks at how the chemicals in some beauty products could be related to an increased likelihood of developing endometriosis, an abnormal growth of the endometrial tissue which creates symptoms like intense pelvic pain, intestinal problems, and infertility. Currently, there is no definitive cure to endometriosis, and it is very difficult to diagnose despite an estimated 1 in 10 women of reproductive age being affected. The increased chances of being diagnosed with endometriosis not only greatly lowers the quality of life for the women due to the pain and digestive issues, but also further impacts the dropping fertility rates.
Humans are well on the path to becoming endangered, currently meeting three of the five criteria, and the causes are everywhere. From the chemicals in makeup and plastic, to smoking and the growing obesity rate, it seems like the causes are ingrained into our everyday life. So what can you do in order to stop this rapidly evolving issue? The simple answer is to be more aware of what you’re putting both on and in your body. While it’s difficult to do in depth research on every single thing you’re ingesting, a good place to start is making sure your cosmetics (face creams, hairsprays, lipsticks, etc.) don’t contain high levels of parabens or benzophenones.
With so many negative chemicals being increasingly incorporated into the products we use and our lives in general, we soon have to examine where we stand in regards to them. Is the continued manufacturing of certain products really worth it if they are linked to reproductive issues, and why do humans tend to think we are so invincible? Soon our actions are going to catch up to us, whether that be through climate change or through the issues laid out here. We, both personally and in society, have to ask ourselves how far we will let it go before taking adequate action and continue to question why those above us fail to do so if we want to have any chance at combating these growing issues.