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Studies Support the Link Between Endocrine Disruptor Exposure on Semen Quality

Recent research connects exposure to endocrine disruptors and weakened fertility and semen quality in men.

June 28, 2021
Allaina Wagner

Male infertility as a result of sperm quality decreasing has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, with researchers initially at a loss as to what was causing these issues. Recent studies, and research from the past two decades, have suggested that one of the primary causes of male infertility was exposure to endocrine disruptors which were found in plastics and other common products.

Doctor sitting across from patient at desk
Always discuss any concerns you have about your fertility with your doctor or fertility specialist.

Impact of endocrine disruptors on the body

What are endocrine disruptors and how do they negatively affect people’s health?

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals, both naturally and artificially formed, that affect the endocrine system by either interfering with or imitating hormones. The endocrine system is responsible for regulating and secreting hormones that are utilized in many areas of the body, and disturbance of this system due to endocrine disruptors can cause issues with a person’s brain, immune system, fertility, and many other areas of health.

These issues can arise from endocrine disruptors that are found in everyday life and in workplace settings. These chemicals can be found in plastic products, metal cans, detergents, certain foods, makeup, and pesticides. While the government has cracked down on endocrine disruptor content in goods as more research has come out about the negative effects on embryo development and male fertility, it is still a risk that can be encountered today. Even in small doses, endocrine disruptors can have a negative impact on the human body and on animals.

Recent research has discovered a strong link between the impact of endocrine disruptor exposure to low semen quality in offspring. While this research has allowed for some conclusions about the relationship, more work is necessary to gain a fuller picture of the impact of endocrine disruptors on the body.

Couple sits on bed with dog, and woman holds up pregnancy test
While studies show a decrease in sperm quality, this doesn’t necessarily mean total infertility.

What studies have revealed so far

How endocrine disruptors impact fertility, health, and males’ semen quality

One study that focused on understanding the role of endocrine disruptors on pregnant women’s offspring, and specifically whether the semen quality of male offspring was impacted, found that “men who have been exposed in utero” to endocrine disruptors “are twice more likely to have semen volume and total sperm count per ejaculation” below standards set by the World Health Organization.

This study consisted of analyzing semen quality of 3,000 Swiss male subjects, with a portion of the subject population having mothers that worked during their pregnancy. The women’s jobs were documented in detail and the probability that each woman who worked was exposed to endocrine disruptors was established based on a job-exposure matrix.

The result of this study found the poorer semen quality in men corresponded to in-vitro exposure to pesticides, phthalates, and heavy metals. The researchers of the study noted that this study’s results “do not determine the future fertility of young men” due to the nature of the study only taking a small sample of Swiss men into account, and because a follow-up study is necessary to analyze the long-term consequences of mothers’ endocrine disruptor exposure on their sons. The study does, however, provide some insight as to why the semen quality of young men in Switzerland was poorer than average.

In a retrospective study that analyzed the impact of a major endocrine disruptor exposure in 1979 in Taiwan due to a rice oil contamination, the results were consistent with the previous study mentioned. Smaller studies of the country’s population showed that both in-utero and post-natal exposure led to abnormal semen that was of a lower quality than before the exposure outbreak. While this type of contamination was extreme, as these Taiwanese people were exposed to large volumes of endocrine disruptors, the study supports that the disruptors have a relationship to negatively impacting semen.

The negative impact on semen quality that endocrine disruptors seem to have is strongly supported by both of these studies, but more research is necessary to confirm the relationship.

Person holds negative pregnancy test over sink
Fertility issues can arise from many different environmental and genetic factors, not just exposure to endocrine disruptors.

The future of fertility and endocrine disruptors

How the studies have impacted public health and awareness about disruptor’s impact on fertility

These studies, as well as similar studies, have helped to create policy that decreases the public’s exposure to endocrine disruptors. The United States enacted the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 which helps to regulate the chemicals that are placed in and distributed in products like toys, cosmetics, and other household items like plastics.

Other countries have enacted similar policies to decrease their citizen’s endocrine disruptor exposure, but there are still ways for people to be exposed to it naturally and in some unregulated work environments.

The studies that have recently been released, and the research that is planned to learn more about endocrine disruptors and the effect they have on the body, have made a significant impact on national policies and have drastically improved male fertility rates. While male fertility continues on a steady decline across the world, the discoveries about the role of endocrine disruptors in male sperm quality and volume continue to improve and inform a better approach to solving the infertility issue.

Four people sit around table and view ultrasound images
While it’s well-known that as women get older they run into greater fertility issues and risks, the same is true for aging men. As men age, especially past 35, their chances at conceiving decrease noticeably.

While the new knowledge from the studies about endocrine disruptors and their role on semen quality seems promising in solving the male fertility crisis, there’s still a lot of work to do in order to increase male fertility rates across the world. By finding out the enormous and universally negative role that endocrine disruptor exposure has on semen, strides are being taken in finding a solution for this devastating issue.


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