Fertility

'Spermageddon' Has Been Canceled, Says New Study

The claim that men face ‘environmental emasculation’ via exposure to synthetic endocrine disruptors is debunked.

|

The idea of "Spermageddon," as the popular science press likes to call it, was launched by a group of Scandinavian researchers in an article published by the journal BMJ back in 1992, in which they reported that the average human sperm count had fallen by nearly 50 percent over the last 50 years. The authors speculated that increasing exposure to "compounds with oestrogen-like activity" might be responsible for declining sperm counts. In their 1996 book, Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival?—A Scientific Detective Story, zoologist Theo Colborn and her colleagues argued that pervasive synthetic chemicals dubbed "endocrine disrupters" were responsible for all manner of health and environmental problems, including falling sperm counts. Ever ready to fan the flames of panic, the publicists at Greenpeace quickly initiated a clever campaign of advertisements declaring, "You're not half the man your father was."

In 1997, California Department of Health Services epidemiologist Shanna Swan and her colleagues published a study in Environmental Health Perspectives that also found declining sperm counts in the U.S. and Europe. "Among the adverse health endpoints that have been linked to endocrine-altering chemicals in the environment," they noted, "male reproductive dysfunction, and particularly impaired semen quality, is of particular concern."

Swan has a made a career out of flogging the idea that trace exposures to synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals are drastically harming human male fertility. For example, she was a co-author of a 2017 meta-analysis in Human Reproduction Update that reported "a significant decline in sperm counts (as measured by SC [sperm concentration] and TSC [total sperm count) between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50–60% decline among men unselected by fertility [that is, it is not known whether or not they had conceived a pregnancy] from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."

Earlier this year, Swan and her co-author Stacey Colino popularized their alarm over the alleged harms of commonly used synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals in their new 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. Swan and Colino even recycled the old Greenpeace claim, "A man today has only half the number of sperm his grandfather had."

A new analysis in Human Fertility by an interdisciplinary team led by Harvard science historian Sarah Richardson finds that the 2017 meta-analysis by Swan and her colleagues suffers from significant methodological problems. Consequently, their claims about declining human sperm counts and rising rates of infertility are at least exaggerated, if not just wrong.

Among other things, the new study finds that Swan's falling sperm count trend in "Western" countries was obtained only after cobbling together data showing no significant trends in U.S. sperm counts with declining Western European trends. In addition, average sperm counts in the flat trend in "Other" populations from South America, Asia, and Africa were actually fairly close to the now lower Western sperm counts reported by Swan. Consequently, the authors of the new study observe that Swan's research "produces a picture of crisis around declining sperm counts among Western men, but treats the already lower average sperm counts of non-Western 'Other' men as outside of the umbrella of concern and crisis."

Richardson and her colleagues also note that Swan's declining Western sperm counts are still well within the World Health Organization's normal range of 15–259 million sperm per milliliter for individuals. In response to Swan's 2017 article, Peter Schlegel, the chair of urology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, told The New York Times in 2018, "if you had a decrease in sperm count in the 50 to 60 percent range, we would expect the proportion of men with severe male infertility to be going up astronomically. And we don't see that."

With respect to fertility, Allan Pacey, an andrologist at the University of Sheffield and the editor of Human Fertility, told The New York Times that, "doubling your sperm count from 25 to 50 million doesn't double your chances. Doubling it from 100 to 200 million doesn't double your chances—in fact it flattens off, if anything. So this relationship between sperm count and fertility is weak."

Swan's claim that exposure to minuscule amounts of synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals found in plastics, flame retardants, electronics, food packaging, pesticides, personal care products, and cosmetics is causing widespread health problems has been debunked many times. Recently, a group of European toxicologists pointed out in a 2020 editorial in the Archives of Toxicology that "the potencies of S-EDCs [synthetic-endocrine disrupting chemicals] are much lower than for N-EDCs [natural-endocrine disrupting chemicals], drugs or endogenous hormones." They conclude that "therefore, at the low human exposures that have been demonstrated in all sensibly conducted studies, S-EDCs have virtually no chance to physiologically compete with natural hormones in binding to free receptors. This implies that the health risks of the known S-EDCs are nil or at least negligible." That is to say that trace exposures to the chemicals that worry Swan cannot be responsible for the supposed declines in sperm counts she claims to have discovered.

Based on their analysis of what they call Swan's "Sperm Count Decline" hypothesis, Richardson and her colleagues counter with their proposed "Sperm Count Biovariability" hypothesis. They suggest that the data show that sperm counts vary naturally over time and within populations. "Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical," they further note. "Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less."

In other words, the claim that Swan makes in Count Down that men face "environmental emasculation" is false.

NEXT: In a Rush To Ban Vaccine Passports, Texas Is Violating Private Property Rights

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Based on their analysis of what they call Swan’s “Sperm Count Decline” hypothesis, Richardson and her colleagues counter with their proposed “Sperm Count Biovariability” hypothesis. They suggest that the data show that sperm counts vary naturally over time and within populations. “Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical,” they further note. “Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less.”

    So what’s the takeaway here, sperm counts are declining but not because of Endocrine disruptors, and the decline doesn’t matter anyway?

    1. Sexual behavior among teens and twenties is down. Birth rates are down. Abortion rates are down. Women (and men) are working more and are less happy. But you can relax because some people were wrong about the average number of sperm per male.

      I’d say “Fuck ‘learn to code’, teach systems engineering.” but people like Ron would take it to mean “Teach kids that greater social integration is always good unless someone gets misgendered.”

      1. Systems engineers are the worst, they know very little about a few topics, but they think they know alot about everything. They look at their spread sheet and go “hey look if I change the bit rate spec to 1000 gbps we will hit our goal with room to spare!”

        1. I’m not saying to make them all systems engineers any more than your average ‘learn to code’ advocate wants them all to become programmers (I think). And, just because you had a bad experience with a software or computer systems engineer doesn’t mean every last industrial/mechanical/chemical/etc. systems engineer is worthless.

          Just saying that the sentence “So this relationship between sperm count and fertility is weak.” is pretty much as bad as the counter argument. Especially in light of the facts I mentioned above, doubly so in light of the policy that’s being crafted (and systems put in place) on the assumption that the facts I mentioned above aren’t true.

          1. Sarah getting Paid upto $18953 in the week, working on-line at home. I’m full time Student. I shocked when my sister’s told me about her check that was $97k. It’s very easy to do. everybody will get this job.Go to home media tab for additional details… Visit Here

            1. Making money online more than 15$ just by doing simple work from home. I have received $18376 last month. Its an easy and simple job to do and its earnings are much better than regular office job and even a little child can do this and earns money. Everybody must try this job by just use the info
              on this page…..VISIT HERE

      2. So teens and 20s are less sexual? Good! They need to be less sociable too!

        If they’re more sociable, they might form gangs, knock on your door, and give ya”a bit of the ol’ Ultraviolence!”

        So keep ’em lost in their devices, baby!

    2. Thought Spermageddon’ was what went on at Tony’s apartment onFriday nights.

  2. So the person who built her career on lying and P hacking is getting fired and loosening her diplomas and credentials right?

    1. It’s worse. She wrote a book for the general public about a topic that only scientists are supposed to know about.

  3. It’s the same old story, just a new twist. We’re not a heroic as our ancestors, who carved a nation out of the wilderness. Back then men were real men. It’s all been going downhill. We’re domesticating ourselves. Yada, yada, yada, etc.

    Okay yes, we are domesticating ourselves. But the past was not a glorious era of manly men, just smelly men in search of modern hygiene. Yes they performed some feats that seem daunting, but they also died young with rotten teeth. And half their children died before their first birthday.

    Our sperm counts are NOT declining. If you’re worry, wear boxers instead of briefs. That’s also a myth, but if you believe one why not the other?

    Then again, if you don’t think you are as manly as your hairy ancestors, you might be right. But your sperm count is probably just fine.

    1. At the same time, the fight against slavery and the Nazis actually was more heroic than women wearing boxers or wife-beaters surviving police ‘attacks’.

    2. Then again, if you don’t think you are as manly as your hairy ancestors, you might be right. But your sperm count is probably just fine.

      My message to young millennial couples, straight or lesbian is, if you’re having trouble conceiving, hit me up, because my boys can swim.

    3. “We’re domesticating ourselves. Yada, yada, yada, etc. ”

      You’ve misunderstood. We’re poisoning ourselves.

      “Our sperm counts are NOT declining. ”

      According to people who make their living measuring and studying sperm counts they are. It’s not a controversial finding and it’s widely recognized. Prenatal exposure to these chemicals disrupt hormones and the results are a host of conditions in both males and females, humans and animals.

      1. I smell someone too wed to the idea men are facing systemic emasculation to recognize it’s hokum…

        1. I’m not interested in the ideas Brandybuck is wed to. Declining sperm counts have been repeatedly observed and measured, apparently because of prenatal exposure to these hormone disruptors. It goes beyond emasculation, as well. The chemicals affect women in various ways. They affect animals in various ways. Hell, they even affect plants.

        2. I smell bunches of people who speak of all this infertility like it’s a bad thing.

          Remember, libertarians: The greatest threat to human rights is the human race.

  4. In other words, the claim that Swan makes in Count Down that men face “environmental emasculation” is false.

    But what about moobs? There’s more of *them*, right?

    1. Non-Hetero guys like to tit-fuck too, so there’s that.

  5. Search for total fertility rate, read up, pick your source. Fact is it’s going down. Worse for Europe, Asia, North America. Better for Africa. In fact look at any population project for 2100 and see who’s gonna show up for the future. That is who will be making the decisions. Look at where population will grow, and correlate that to more liberal democratic societies. It’s not going the way you think it will.

    1. And not just total fertility rate. Abortion and teen pregnancy rates are down as well. Free time and enjoyment of such are reportedly down as well. Agreed that none of the above says people are conclusively being more oppressed/oppressive than they were but, unless you unreasonably reject all of them, it very much walks like a socially oppressive duck, talks like a socially oppressive duck, has feathers and webbed feet like a socially oppressive duck…

      1. ” it very much walks like a socially oppressive duck”

        You mean socially oppressing a population by exposing them willy nilly to toxic pollutants? I can see you making the argument if it were some model factory in Siberia in the 1970s that was the culprit, but in today’s capitalist west?

        1. You mean socially oppressing a population by exposing them willy nilly to toxic pollutants?

          No. Socially oppressing a population by keeping them isolated indoors and masked because of a <5% risk of death that doesn't set in until way past their reproductive years. Socially oppressing a population by telling women they *need* to work as hard as men, even in sporting and leisure endeavors, and telling men they need to continue to work as hard as they have but get paid the same as women who don't, unless they identify as women. Socially oppressing a population by telling people they're either victims of or guilty of an unending racial tyranny. Socially oppressing a populaiton by telling them that the very CO2 they produce doing virtually anything, including breathing, is destroying the future of life as we know it. Socially oppressing people by selling them on the fact that the internet is God's honest truth but that they still need the government to protect them from disinformation on the internet. Socially oppressing people by telling them that healthcare is a right and then taxing their children for it into perpetuity. Socially oppressing people by telling them (on top of healthcare spending) that non-reproductive sexual risk is a-OK but non-sexual risk is verboten. Socially oppressing people by convincing them that misgendering is an existential threat to their gender while insisting they respect cultures and support movements where women and children are used as sexual currency to move them across borders. Socially oppressing people by telling them that years-long research is necessary to reduce the risk posed by any potential drug but, in an "emergency" risk doesn't matter. Socially oppressing people by telling them that the labor their grandparents put in to produce the food that their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren eat is toxic and/or destroying the planet. Socially oppressing people by whimsically converting any of the 'telling' above into 'finding them guilty of' and depriving them of their possessions and livelihood. Socially oppressing a population by locking more people in cages… that kind of social oppression.

          Potentially exposing a portion of the population to pollutants, especially inadvertently and/or transiently on the part of niche corporations is but one feather.

          1. I don’t see why exposing a population to toxins prenatally is not social oppression, given your expansive view on the matter. It happens in society and it’s undesirable. If these toxins were made in a communist country would it then be classified as social oppression? Is that what you’re driving at? I’m really not sure what your point is.

          2. Young males who have added soy products to their diet will have noticeable changes.
            Places like Portland and Seattle are filled with little soi bois.

            1. It’s the diet of their mothers that is relevant. Prenatal exposure is where the action is. Also a few months after being born. Boys and girls are exposed to these chemicals in the womb and while they are nursing.

      2. Why aren’t the Religious Right cheering if abortions are down? And why isn’t everybody cheering that teen pregnancies are down?

        Damnit! That is “Celebrity Ball” material right there!

        1. Who says they aren’t?

    2. As if “liberal democracy” (whatever that means, it sounds like a contradiction) is genetic?

  6. We’ll just wait to see what sperm counts look like after a certain vaccine makes its way through the male population.

    1. With that novel protein spike attached to each sperm head fertilization should be a snap!

    2. Yep. With the vaccine, men can get out more and start spurting spoo in anybody or anything with a hole, just like old times. 🙂

  7. “They suggest that the data show that sperm counts vary naturally over time and within populations. ”

    There’s a idea out there that links prenatal exposure to these chemicals to a variety of sexual conditions from lower sperm count to deformed genitalia. It’s a scientific hypothesis. It may not be true and you may disagree with it, but you need science to fight science, and ‘vary naturally’ doesn’t cut the mustard. It’s vague, and lacks any explanatory power. A science editor should know this.

  8. Spermageddon. Band name. Called it.

  9. More likely you have effects of soy/vegan diets making men essentially eunichs along with emasculating men in the work world…these have physical effects….an aggressive driven goal orientated male is marginalized in most cases in corporate America..unless you have your own company you are forced to “eat soy” as they say. Boys never are allowed to become men anymore and are criticized for the behavior of earlier generations of real men..

    1. See my response to JohnZ below. Man, where do ya’ll get this stuff?

      By the way, I like Edamame Beans with my Filet Mignon. Does that make me Bi-Soylent? Does that mean I’m twice as likely to be in the middle of a threesome sandwich at a swinger party?

  10. Another theory is that socialized medicine reduces fertility and birth rates. That makes sense, since the Western European nations are declining worse than the US.

      1. Uh, OK. Gun control reduces fertility and birth rates. That makes sense, since th Western European nations are declining worse than the US.

        1. Let’s do blacks. A lower percentage of virile black bucks in the population reduces fertility and birth rates. That makes sense too, apparently.

          1. Let’s do blacks. A lower percentage of virile black bucks in the population reduces fertility and birth rates. That makes sense too, apparently.

            I don’t think you understand what you’re trying to argue. The straw man is winning.

            1. I’m not trying to argue. In fact I don’t believe that socialism, guns or blacks have anything to do with lower sperm counts. If you have evidence to the contrary you are welcome to share it.

              1. It’s Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc all the way down.

                1. Here’s what you’re dealing with:

                  mtrueman|8.30.17 @ 1:42PM|#
                  Spouting nonsense is an end in itself.

                  1. I love nonsense. What’s your excuse?

                    1. You’re full of shit and need excuses.
                      I’m not.

      2. I support gun control….by using both hands instead of holding it sideways with one hand while simultaneously holding up your pants with the other, spraying and praying.

        1. Yeah, but how do aim it or exercise situational awareness with that hood obstructing your peripheral vision?

          1. Does YOUR black hoodie obstruct YOUR peripheral vision?

            1. I don’t wear a hoodie or relate to a boring “sport” like baseball. Nor do I assume the world is some false Identitarian binary.

              I’m just the Everyman Curmudgeon who insists that everybody keep their Ragnarok/Mau-Mau/Armageddon/World War Z off my lawn.

  11. I just did a quick study using an internet search. It appears there is 24/7 access to porn. Masturbation rates have skyrocketed as free time has picked up and sperm production just can’t keep up with demand. Now where is my Phd and all that grant money.

    1. Just a quick study? Now, now, you can’t rush research on these things. By the way, is that Armor All on your keyboard? 😉

  12. Maybe part of the problem is that so many young males have included soy products into the diet. Soy contains a phyto estrogen, which means it will have an effect of male hormone development.
    Of course certain people of a certain persuasion would have no problem with that.
    The idea of being a male, especially a white male in America is deemed RAYCISS!!

    1. I’ve been over this with daveca: If soy makes males infertile, how do you explain the presence of 1.5 billion Chinese?

      To give you an idea of the alleged power of soy, comedian Redd Foxx observed about 50 years ago: “There are 800 million Chinese! And they keep coming! That’s what they’ve been doing! That’s why there’s 800 millionof them!”

      1. So, is Redd Foxx one of (((Them?))) He might have had The Big One if he found that out.

      2. “…If soy makes males infertile, how do you explain the presence of 1.5 billion Chinese?..”

        One really, really busy guy who hates soy?

        1. Wow! That would take some super energy supplements and an IV feed of Viagra!

    2. “Maybe part of the problem is that so many young males have included soy products into the diet.”

      You mean young mothers, don’t you? Or maybe young white mothers? Prenatal exposure seems to be where the damage is done, or shortly after birth through breast feeding.

      1. Shhh! He might go home and bitch-slap his wife and say: “Wo-mern! Whar’s Junior’s ribeye steak?!?! Quisinart it and put it in his bottle!!!””

  13. Damn! I was wanting Maury Povich’s career to be over!

  14. If Bailey writes it, it must be fact checked. Could be true, but Bailey writes so many errors, it has to be verified.

Please to post comments