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The Environmental Contaminants Destroying Male Fertility

More information about common environmental contaminants and how they affect male fertility.

February 18, 2021
Macie Gelb

Over the years, there has been an escalation in infertility in men. It has been found through scientific research that environmental contaminants play a role in this pattern. This is because environmental contaminants disrupt spermatogensis, or the creation of sperm in the male sex organs. They also play a role in the impairment of testicular steroidogenesis, or the steroid production that happens in the testicles that is imperative for fertility. Defining what environmental contaminants are and how they can be avoided is important information to know when monitoring or considering your own fertility as a man. 

Environmental contaminants have become more pervasive as a result of industrialization and factory production. 

What are Environmental Contaminants? 

Environmental contaminants include a wide variety of chemicals ranging from pesticides to herbicides to fertilisers to plasticisers, which are liquids used to soften plastic. They also include effluents released from production units, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heavy metals. In the past one hundred years, around eighty thousand new chemicals have been released into the environment. They are pervasive and distributed widely in the ecosystem. They make their way to human life by way of the food chain. Most of the environmental contaminants have been found in sediment, water and wastewaters as well as in human and wildlife food materials. These contaminants are heavily a result of the rise in industrialization, as factories have made a huge impact in the manufacturing of such chemicals. 

Environmental contaminants can disrupt testicular function and impair the viability of sperm.

The Impact of Environmental Contaminants 

Testicular Functions

Certain environmental contaminants are known as endocrine disruptors. This is because they are able to mimic the appearance of endogenous hormones, which are hormones found naturally in the human body, containing things like estrogen, which at irregular and raised levels can impact male fertility. Then, these contaminants interrupt the male endocrine system. They essentially destroy endogenous hormones in the body by fighting them as either an agonist or an antagonist. 

The testes are one of the most vulnerable targets of this endogenous hormone destruction. When the endogenous hormones are disrupted and mimicked, there can be an increase in estrogen production in the testes, resulting in lowered levels of fertility. Exposure to these environmental chemicals that mimic estrogen also negatively impacts the process of spermatogenesis, the creation of sperm. Spermatogenesis is affected because the environmental contaminants have a negative impact on the proliferation and differentiation of germ cells. Proliferation is the increase in sperm that happens naturally as a male goes through puberty, so when it is disrupted, less sperm is created, resulting in lowered fertility.

Epididymal Functions 

The epididymis is where sperm are matured and stored. The epididymis is an imperative part of the process because if the sperm does not adequately mature, it is unable to fertilize a woman’s egg, making it useless when it comes to fertility. Sperm literally acquire the ability to fertilize in the epididymis, so if that process is compromised, it is a real problem. The effects of environmental contaminants on the epididymis include a reduced epididymal weight and a lowered epididymal sperm count. 

Environmental contaminants such as bisphenol A (BPA), found in plastics, can even affect male fertility if the male’s mother is exposed to them before or while becoming pregnant. It has been observed that maternal exposure to BPA affects the epididymal functions of male offspring, meaning the implications of exposure to these contaminants affects generations. 

Prostate and Seminal Vesicles 

The seminal vesicles and the prostate and key parts of male reproductive anatomy. They are the two main sex glands, and they provide 90% of seminal plasma, or the fluid component of sperm. Seminal plasma is important, as it protects, feeds, and carries sperm after ejaculation and through fertilisation. Environmental contaminants affect the prostate and seminal vesicles through shrinking their weight and hindering their ability to create testosterone, a hormone responsible for the growth and maturation of the sex glands. When the growth of the sex glands is inhibited through exposure to environmental contaminants, they are unable to properly do their job, resulting in male infertility. 

Sperm Function

Over the past several decades, there has been an observed decrease in the quality of human semen. There has also been an increase in the occurrence of cryptorchidism, a condition observed in male infants in which one or both of the testes fail to descend from the stomach. These observations are directly linked to the raised exposure to environmental contaminants that has risen in prevalence over the years. The environmental contaminants negatively impact sperm density, motility, and vitality, and they also make conditions like cryptorchidism more prevalent.  

There are scientific measures that can be taken to manage lowered fertility as a result of exposure to environmental contaminants. 

How to Combat the Negative Effects of Exposure

Exposure to environmental contaminants is relatively inevitable, as they are invisible and everywhere. On a basic level, avoiding plastics that contain chemicals like BPA is a great idea. From a more complicated, scientific standpoint, there are interventions and measures that can be taken to mitigate the negative effects of exposure to these contaminants. There are mechanisms that can be applied to help. 

Changing male steroid receptors to work with the changes imposed by exposure to environmental contaminants is one. 

Changing the chemical structure of DNA through epigenetic alterations is another therapy. 

Working to induce oxidative stress can also help. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Free radicals are molecules that contain oxygen and have an uneven number of electrons. 

At the very least, being aware of the existence and prevalence of environmental contaminants and how they can impact your fertility is a great thing. Reaching out to medical professionals and scientists is advisable when it comes to your own body and environmental contaminants, and finding out what options are necessary or available to you to increase your fertility.


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