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Chemical and plastic pollution risks causing an infertile world by 2045

by Joy Green, Mar 31
3 minutes read

Fertility specialist Professor Shanna Swan has warned that fertility trends are declining so rapidly that most couples may need to use assisted reproduction by 2045. While many factors are in play, decades of research on endocrine disrupting chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenols has led her to conclude there is strong evidence that they play a major causal role. These chemicals are widely used in plastics and coatings and common household products and are present in most processed foods and drinks (due to the plastic containers and tubing used during production) – so almost everyone is exposed to them. They are also persistent and accumulative, building up in the animals and fish we eat, and in our own bodies.

assorted plastic bottles

Use of these chemicals is very lightly regulated due to the presumption in most countries that new chemicals are safe unless specifically proven not to be. This also means that where bans exist, they are limited and substitution with similar compounds (such as bisphenol S for BPA) is legally permitted, despite the fact that the health risks are likely to be similar.

Fertility levels are declining for both men and women of all ages. Sperm counts in western men have more than halved over the past 40 years and continue to fall at the same rate, and the risk of miscarriage has increased. Extrapolation of this strong trend points to a median sperm count of zero by 2045.

So what

There are many potential implications of this research. It casts a particularly uncomfortable light on the news that we each eat around a credit card’s worth of plastic every week due to microplastics in our food and drinks. Microplastic pollution is now associated with a very serious and deepening public health problem with multifaceted consequences for both individuals and societies.

There are implications for diets, as an important way to limit exposure is to eat unprocessed food and reduce meat and fish intake. There is also an equity issue to consider, as Professor Swan notes that,”Communities of color are differentially overexposed, for example, by decreased availability of fresh, unprocessed foods and their proximity to poorer air and water quality.”

Dealing with this problem will necessitate a systemic approach to endocrine disruptor chemicals that Professor Swan describes as ‘remove, replace and regulate’, although she notes that this will not be easy as ‘there are huge economic interests preventing tougher regulation.’

If this does not happen, we could see serious long term consequences at wider societal level. For example, faster ageing and shrinking of populations than official projections suggest, particularly in areas  which have had longer unregulated exposure to these chemicals, such as the USA.

 

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by Joy Green Spotted 29 signals

Joy is a Principal Futurist at Forum for the Future.

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