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Male infertility is a global existential crisis

If our standard of living had dropped by 50% since the 1970’s we’d all know about it, right? No family holidays, no car and poor food. Fundamentally it would mean that we were no better off than our great grandparents were in the Depression-era of the 1930’s.

Here’s the thing though, male fertility has dropped by 50% since the 1970’s and most people have no idea about it! Yet, it is possible that the phenomenon could threaten human existence itself.

Dr. Shanna Swan, Fertility Specialist, Mount Sinai, USA said, “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival. It’s a global existential crisis.”

Sperm count has fallen by 59%

Dr. Swan knows her stuff. She’s just written a book, Count Down – How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race. This outlines the problem and what we should do about it.  Dr. Swan has been studying sperm viability since 1997 and describes sperm counts as her canary in a coal mine scenario. Three years ago, she undertook a study of 40,000 men demonstrating how their sperm count fell a whopping 59% between 1973 and 2011.

With that in mind, she believes that fertility concerns have been focused on women alone for too long. Dr. Swan writes in her book, “If women want to have a baby, they are often told to clean up your act. But it’s probably more important for men to do so.”

Normal sperm count ranges from 15 million sperm per milliliter to 200 million per milliliter. However, Dr. Swan argues that anything below 40 million creates issues in terms of fertility. Nowadays, modern males are getting close to that number (at 47.1 million sperm per milliliter). Their fathers, on the other hand, had an average of 99 million sperm per milliliter, so it is clear that we should all be worried. It’s not only sperm count that should worry men. Testosterone levels are also dropping. For instance, one study in 2006 showed a 15% drop between 2002 and 1987 in older men.

The perfect storm of factors

Many aspects contribute to this situation:

  • Lifestyle: poor dietary habits, alcohol consumption, smoking, drug intake and lack of exercise can all affect sperm quality negatively
  • Environmental chemicals and pollutants: plastics and chemicals in the air, water and food chain can disrupt the male hormonal system.

Addressing the factors

The lifestyle habits of males are the easiest to address. Firstly, quit smoking. Next, drink sensibly. Governments offer guidelines on this. In the UK it is advised that men drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week; equivalent to six pints of beer. Maintaining a healthy weight with diet and exercise is also advised.

On the environmental side of things, while it may not be possible to change your actual environment, but you can take precautions:

  • Food: buy organic to avoid pesticides and herbicides that interfere with male hormones and aim to only consume animal/dairy products labeled as raised without antibiotics or no added hormones
  • Personal hygiene: avoid cleansers, soaps, shampoos and skin-care products, including deodorants and antiperspirants that are antibacterial and favour products labeled paraben-free and phthalate free
  • Household cleaning products: use non-toxic household cleaners/scouring fluids and avoid using air fresheners routinely
  • Air pollution: avoid areas of high air pollution and consider using a face mask in built up areas with traffic in order to counter particulate pollution from vehicle exhausts
  • Water: make sure that your water supply is of acceptable quality before drinking it directly. Note: this is not always the case even in countries like the US. There can be wide variations in quality. If in doubt, drink bottled water from glass, not plastic bottles.

The mission here is for men to be proactive about your fertility and to optimise the chances of becoming a father.

It’s not business as usual

Dr. Swan advises, “We can no longer afford to behave as though it’s business as usual. The time has come for us to stop playing Russian roulette with our reproductive capacities. It’s up to us to heed the message and take steps to protect our legacies.”

Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by Dr. Shanna Swan is published by Scribner. It is available from most online bookstores in both hard copy and digital formats from 23 February 2021.