Shooting blanks

Written By: - Date published: 12:00 pm, December 30th, 2008 - 16 comments
Categories: science - Tags:

Italian males, despite the appearance of virility in their persistent attentions to female tourists, have caught the European disease – male infertility. A study this year shows some dramatic falls in male fertility in Italy since the 1970’s.

Finding Dulcinea summarized the Italian results as:-

During the 1970s, Italian men averaged 71 million spermatoza per millimeter. But today, they average 60 million, according to a study of 10,000 healthy men conducted by Fabrizio Menchini Fabris of Pisa University.
Fabris also found that today, fewer than 30 percent of the sperm are ‘active’ in Italian men, while 50 percent were active in the 1970s. Taken together, these number mean that Italian men today have 50 percent fewer active sperm than they did thirty years ago.

It is a common observation across the whole of Europe and North America – but at differing rates. In 2004 the Canadian National Review of Medicine summarized the then current knowledge as:-

The rate of decline is similar to reports from France and other European countries, although sperm counts among British men are even below the European average. It’s generally agreed that sperm counts are falling twice as fast in Europe as in North America.

The primary suspects are endocrine disruptor chemicals, especially pesticides. There are many other suspects from smoking to tight underpants. However the use of agricultural pesticides explain the demographic distributions far better than other suspects.


The prime suspect is the insecticide DDT (dicophane). At the end of WWII it was hailed as a wonder weapon against a range of diseases, especially malaria. A chemical in the insecticide called p,p’-DDE has strong estrogenic and anti-androgenic properties. Wherever it is found in high concentrations, there is evidence of demasculinisation. Florida’s Lake Apopka, with extremely high levels of DDT pollution, is swimming with androgynous alligators.

Other problematic chemicals are alkyl phenol ethoxylates and nonylphenol ethoxylates widely used in industrial detergents, paints and pesticides as surfactants. Agricultural pesticides are clearly implicated and go a long way to explain the geographical variation of male fertility. Within Europe it is isolated Finland, with its minimal agriculture, that has the highest sperm counts.

Although DDT has been banned or restricted for two decades in the developed world, its persistence means that it can still be traced in all humans. It is still in widespread use in many malarial zones, from where it can be exported via food or the atmosphere. Little or no action has been taken to restrict other estrogenic compounds in the environment. The problem of falling sperm counts is bound to get worse before it gets better.

Recently other common pesticides in current common usage have also been implicated in studies in the USA.The general characteristic is that the chemicals are endocrine disruptors. What has been puzzling is that they appear to cause little damage to mammal biology or DNS except in large quantities.

In 2005, a study on rats showed the type of effect required to explain what has been observed in human populations.

Pregnant rats exposed to fungicide sprayed on vineyards and pesticide sprayed on crops had male offspring with a sperm count reduced by 20 per cent.

If confirmed by further experiments, the findings could help explain the decline in human male fertility over the past 50 years.

The timing of the exposure turns out to be critical, which is probably why the effect has not been observed previously, and it also has an unexpected damage path.

The scientists exposed pregnant rats to the chemicals at the crucial moment in gestation when the sex of the offspring is determined. The result was that male offspring suffered a 20 per cent decline in sperm counts, and sperm motility – its ability to swim – fell by up to 35 per cent.

What was surprising was that these traits were also seen in 90 per cent of the male offspring born to three more subsequent generations yet the scientists found no obvious mutations in the DNA of the animals.

One possibility is that the toxic substances altered the natural chemicals, called methyl groups, that normally surround the DNA molecule and these subtle changes were inherited by the male offspring.

“We are mostly describing a new phenomenon… The hazards of environmental toxins are much more pronounced that we realised,” Dr Skinner said.

If this result is confirmed, then we could soon have generations of human males shooting blanks. However it is unlikely to slow down the Italian males that my female friends complain about – I suspect that is cultural.

However it does indicate that perhaps we should be investing in learning about how to store sperm for longer. The pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are required to produce the level of food required for the burgeoning world populations. Consequently their use has been spreading throughout all of the world farming areas. If the male fertility levels in other areas follow what has happened in Europe and the USA over the last 50 years, then the problem will self-correct as the population drops.

The issue is that we might get overshoot into the world of P.D.James in her novel The Children of Men. I watched the movie adaption last night – excellent movie. That started me looking at the material on the net.

16 comments on “Shooting blanks”

  1. cha 1

    Unintended consequences and parachuting cats, a true story,maybe?.

  2. Shona 2

    PD James based Children of Men on the research of Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers. Published in 1992 “Our Stolen Future” though disturbing it is a great non fiction read on how the human race is the author of it’s own demise through constantly poisoning it’s food supply. Al Gore insisted when he ran for President that it was the study that he was going to base his presidency on.Well we all know how that turned out, after all he just talks shyte doesn’t he?
    Happy New Year to you all.

  3. lprent 3

    hi cha:
    I’s have to class that as legend. Read this (I went and did roughly the same searches)

  4. cha 4

    Yeah, I know lprent, believe nothing you read and only half of what you see, but a giggle and a smirk for a lazy summer arvo at home.

  5. Ummm, I seriously object to your statement about pesticides being required. Bio Intensive organics can produce similar outputs to factory farming. I highly recommend you check out “The power of community: How Cuba survived peak oil”.

    Pesticides are required if we want out of season produce battery farmed in vast mono cultures. The green revolution was exactly that. We turned out back on eons of built up knowledge about how to grow food. Hung our hopes on science but didn’t do it properly. Commercial interests have interfered. Money is made not from making food safe, but by making people spend more. Often in the agricultural world this is simplified further to just making more. (Exemplified by the status of having a good yield) Research money sadly follows commercial interest more than human or eco system interest and more money generally means more research and more results.

  6. lprent 6

    mouldy: Have a good read of

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

    During my lifetime the world population has more than doubled. The population of NZ has nearly doubled. The world population will probably double again before I crap out – hopefully from one of the western diseases of age. I’d really prefer to not die from more violent means at the hands of the starving or epidemics incubated in the same.

    The problem about food world wide is not about marketing, it is about people, population growth rates, diebacks, war, pestilence etc and all of those awkward consequences of what happens when people start starving.

    Sure there is a small fraction of the world that is wealthy enough to care about what they’re putting in their mouths (like me). Most are more concerned with getting enough food.

    The research on organic farming will carry on in the wealthy countries where the market for the goods is. When it gets simple enough and gives good yields then it will be taken up with alacrity by farmers everywhere – most farmers will use whatever works. At present that does not appear to be the case with the organics simply because they haven’t had the degree of research done into them. What works in NZ will probably not work in Indonesia and will take time to find out what does work.

    In any case, there is so much persistent endocrine disrupters around the ‘west’ already, that I suspect it won’t make much of a difference.

    BTW: I’d suggest moving flats. Mouldy buildings are really hazardous to your health

  7. Akldnut 7

    mama mia – wassa happen to my tadpole, mussa be swimming uppaside downa. Shesa gonna getta worsa before she get betta!!

  8. Janet 8

    I’m sure all those electromagetic fields such as those caused by cellphones and their towers, microwaves and computers can’t be helping either. The cumulative effect of EMF plus environmental toxins are affecting a lot more than just sperm. After all that’s not such a big deal – a few sperm banks are all that is required. We need a healthy planet more.

  9. George Darroch 9

    lprent – totally agree with you that trendy “organics” sold in Parnell has nothing to do with world hunger or the like. But the Cuban experience is instructive, as is stuff being done in India, Indonesia, and across the developing world. Sustainable agriculture has been used to produce very high per-acre outputs, with both new techniques and ones used for thousands of years. Small holders are well documented as putting out higher outputs when compared to larger farms. The problem is, however, is that it isn’t as profitable (in dollar terms) as mega-farming, and is thus neglected by business and policymakers.

  10. cha 10

    Janet, a personal observation, having worked at the high voltage end of the electrical industry for more than 30 years, nearly all the blokes involved in HV substation construction and maintainence father girls and lots of them. EMF?, who knows, but at the kids Christmas party, 80% girls.

  11. Iprent: I understand your confusion of “organics” as a marketing thing. A neighbour of my parents is going organic due to the premium payments available for lamb. A lot of people see organics as a trendy hip think.

    I see organics as a method of production that is massively more sustainable than fossil fuel based agriculture. For me it is not just about the pesticide use but also about the energy used. You claim price is a problem. I claim our eating habits and expectations are a problem. I remember Mum cooking as a kid. Used to always be with raw ingredients, a major component being from the garden and farm. In the late nineties as the tide of Americanisation initiated with the reforms of the eighties rose finally to drown rural Southland. Suddenly we were eating sauces premade from a bottle or a packet, schnitzel that came pre crumbed. It wasn’t preprepared meals, but it was close.

    We have used the once plentiful cheap oil to fund a feast. We have had opulent foods that combined with a lack of exercise are causing health problems for many. You talk as though you expect conventional agriculture to continue to be ‘cheaper’ than organics. What happens when the world economic fires again, oil demand increases to match supply and the price of oil increases again? Many of the chemical solutions promoted by exponents of the Green Revolution have small or large fossil fuel components and/or have high energy inputs required. What happens when all the cheap sources of phosphate (used to make super phosphate more commonly super) are used up.

    Sulphur and phosphate rock – the two main ingredients of super phosphate – had risen from about US$45 ($58) and US$50 a tonne respectively at the start of last year to spot market prices of US$600 and US$300 a tonne or more, Mourits said.

    link

    Conventional farming is based around supplementing natural processes by adding nutrients and using chemicals to control pests. In some cases straight replacement is used. As the prices for these supplements increase this will be reflected in the price. As the supplements are based around non-renewable resources (otherwise they would be organic…) the amount will continue to decrease leading to increase in demand and pricing. This will see at some point conventional farmed produce rise to match organics.

  12. rave 13

    I wonder what the sperm count of the Israeli IDF males is.

  13. Janet 14

    Don’t pilots also disproportionately father girls? Could be the extra radiation up there or increased exposure to EMFs.

    I know women who work in IT seem to have a higher risk of miscarriage.

  14. Janet 15

    Cuban revolution 50 years old today. Now there’s resilience!

  15. lprent 16

    Hi mouldy,

    What I was specifically looking at was the expansion of the technology of organics to places like asia, africa, latin america, pacifica, etc etc.

    The tech for growing these types of crops has been tested largely in the OECD countries. After 30 years it is maybe becoming comparable in cost and production possibilities for temperate zones.

    As far as I’m aware the type of tech required to farm outside of the temperatate zones in the quantities required hasn’t been developed. It will probably take about 15-20 years of painstaking work by locals to work out what works where.

    BTW: If you look at the fertilizer usage in NZ compared to when I was a kid, it is way down. It also dropped before the price went up. Different technologies made it less relevant.

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