Look out, boys! It appears your sperm is taking a hike (or should I say a swim?). So says a hot, new, headline-grabbing study that claims men in Western countries have a lower sperm count than their counterparts in South America, Asia, and Africa.
Okay, so if you’ve recently been to Europe and seen the men’s fashion on display, you might give credence to this claim.
But, before we go full into full “Children of Men” panic mode…
….let’s examine, first, the actual research, and then the researchers making this claim, both of which deserve deeper scrutiny.
The Research on the ‘Sperm Crisis’
Is there a sperm crisis? Who knows! That’s about the best answer science can give us at this point because sperm hasn’t been a big area of study to date, so there’s not a great body of evidence that can say either way. There are some studies, but the quality of those studies is mixed so again, who knows.
But one thing is very clear. People aren’t having many kids in the European Union countries (except for Denmark, which is currently experiencing a baby boom). Is that because they can’t? The evidence says it’s more of a choice than a result of infertility. Most Europeans simply appear pretty ambivalent about parenthood.
Yet that didn’t stop these researchers from making up a reason. Without even a nod to the fact that it’s common to see a reduced birth rate as a country develops economically, the researchers instead looked for a villain. And they found one: Plastics!
The study’s researchers are correct in saying that plastics are hard to avoid, especially in Western nations. Plastics are everywhere—in your water bottle, your toothbrush, earbuds, the car dashboard, that shopping cart you use at the grocery store and the treadmill you use to work out, food containers, eyeglasses, your computer and smart phone, hair products and makeup containers, your hairbrush and razor. Even your clothing contains plastic. The list is too long to detail here, but you get the point.
Why all this plastic? Well, plastic is durable and safe and cheap to use so manufacturers love the stuff. So, since we’re surrounded by plastic and it’s tough to go a day without touching it, it’s pretty easy to suggest a connection between plastic and [name the disease or terrifying condition]. That’s what’s happening with this classic correlative study. The researchers found a correlation between a substance and a disease. Far less dramatic (and headline-creating), however, the researchers did not discover that plastic causes the low sperm count.
These Two Things Exist at the Same Time!
Journalist Rob Kemp, in an article for The Telegraph cleverly titled “Male fertility: hard facts vs flaccid myths” (get it?), reminded readers that these studies do more harm than good:
In 2015, I spoke to Paul Serhal, male fertility consultant and Medical Director of the London-based Centre for Reproductive and Genetic Health, about why he thinks such ‘scare stories’ surrounding sperm health are a distraction from the real causes for concern
‘Although there are issues over the influence of plastics and chemicals on health and wellbeing, this study linking plastics compounds and sunscreen chemicals directly to low sperm count is far from conclusive,’ Serhal argues. ‘None of these elements are likely to be the root cause of problems for couples desperate to conceive.’
The difference between correlation and causation is important because it immediately limits the study’s usefulness. Correlatives studies shouldn’t automatically be thrown in the junk science bin, but people should know that they have limits and are often used by activists to further fears of certain products—especially those made of plastics or that contain chemicals (note: everything contains chemicals, a fact activists like to deny).
One other way to explain the limits of correlation versus causation is to consider that the study might have found a correlation with some other materials—like wood (still quite ubiquitous in everyday items), glass, metal, water, and food. All of these things surround us every day. Should we blame those items? Of course not and let’s face it, it’s a lot harder to make wood and water sound scary. Not so of chemicals.
The chemicals that make up plastics often have scary-sounding, multisyllabic names–like polyethylene, polypropylene, bisphenol, phthalates, and, here’s a good one: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). ABS may be tough to pronounce, but it’s a workhorse chemical that makes plastics super tough for such unglamorous things as drainage pipes and far more glamorous things like electronic equipment exoskeletons, like the outer shell of your computer (you know, that thing that keeps your expensive Mac damage-free when the TSA guy rifles through your carry-on bag). Chemicals are pretty great, huh?
This Study Also Ignores Other Key Factors
Interestingly and perhaps intentionally, the study also failed to consider other factors that could affect a man’s sperm count, which according to the Mayo Clinic includes smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, obesity, past and present medical conditions and medication use, a history of cancer, and the rather obvious detail of whether the patient has experienced trauma to the abdominal, pelvic, or testicular area.
Instead, the researchers collected already completed studies on sperm count then determined if the study’s subjects (who all happened to be from Western, English-speaking countries) came in contact with plastics, which as I explained above are hard to avoid in Western countries.
See how that works? They could just have easily examined the availability of individually packaged snack-sized containers of Jell-O pudding and concluded, yup, where pudding’s available, men have a lower sperm count. Fun! Shall we try other things commonly sold in developed nations?
Now Let’s Look at the Researchers
Next, let’s look at Shanna Swan, one of the lead researchers of the study. Swan looks legitimate. She’s a professor of environmental medicine and public health obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. But she’s also a well-known anti-chemical activist and an acolyte of Frederick Vom Saal, an environmental activist who has been dismissed by the National Toxicology Program and whose work other experts in the field of reproductive health (like Richard Sharpe, here) have denounced.
Like Vom Saal, Swan has made a name for herself producing scientifically laughable yet headline-grabbing studies. She’s boosted by activists who love her alarmist and regressive message and supported by a mainstream press incapable of understanding the basics of scientific research and rigor.
Consider another Swan “study” published a few years ago on the chemicals phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA). For that study, Swan studied ten women who lived in an Old Order Mennonite community in New York State. This handful of women was described as adhering “to a simpler lifestyle than the general U.S. population” and the study disclosed that the women grew most of their own food without using agrochemicals, consumed few processed foods, used fewer household chemicals and personal care products, and relied far less on automobiles for transportation than your average American woman.
For the study, each woman provided Swan urine samples over a 48-hour time period and, not surprisingly, Swan found that these chemical-rejecting and plastics-avoiding Mennonite women had less chemical exposure levels. In other news, kids like ice cream.
Naturally, the hysterical headlines started to appear. Articles were published in a variety of mainstream publications, including United Press International, WebMD, and BusinessWeek, as well as other online publications and blogs all declaring that Americans are consuming dangerous levels of chemicals due to their exposure to plastics.
At the time that Swan presented this study and answered concerned media inquiries about it, she suggested a few minor changes to our collective lifestyles would remedy the situation. Specifically, she suggested we all live like Mennonites, forgoing things like Wi-Fi, television, and cars. She also said Americans should begin consuming mostly homegrown produce—because busy moms and dads have enough time to plow, plant, and harvest massive quantities of produce every year.
As a working mom of three kids, I have a ton of time to devote to grinding the grain I’ve just planted, grown (without pesticides, natch) and harvested for the bread I have to make from scratch (even though I can get an already baked loaf at the store for less two dollars, and it comes with a free bag!). I’ll also have to spend all my free time and each evening canning enough summer-grown food to last throughout the winter. Personally, I look forward to having cows and chickens living in my backyard, which will provide milk, eggs, and eventually meat for the family. What neighbor doesn’t like having to listen to the sounds of animals being slaughtered?
Swan also suggests you make yourself feel terrible by taking a pass on cosmetics and limit your use of personal care products. And she wants us all to get around town using sources other than automobiles, which is a head-scratcher considering we’ll all have to move into the country to have enough acreage to grow all that food and raise those animals.
The Truth about the Sperm Crisis
Science can be boring, which is why this seemingly reputable and dramatic fertility crisis study generated so many headlines. This exposes two troubling realities.
First, science reporting is in crisis because the public can no longer rely on journalists to carefully examine a study’s methodology to determine its validity, nor can the public expect journalists to examine the motivations behind the study’s researchers to determine if that scientist is actually an activist pushing an agenda. (If so, it’s fine to report on the study, but the researchers’ motives should also be exposed.)
Second, these dodgy studies reveal that the field of science is increasingly becoming a tool of activists eager to scare the public and halt innovation in products. Scientists have one job: to make discoveries that will improve the human condition. It begs the question: Are researchers like Swan and her partners doing that?
Are they helping people when they make weak correlations between modern conveniences and affordable products and diseases? Are they helping women by telling them to spend every waking hour growing, making, and preserving their own food? Was life really better 100 years ago, before everyone had a car, air conditioning, and easy access to modern conveniences? Was life better in 1917, when worldwide life expectancy was around 35 years?
Swan and many other activists’ regressive goals will do one thing: harm people and bring innovation and product improvement to a screeching halt. People (and in this latest case, men) deserve better information about health trends that may signify a problem. Sadly, today science is taking a back seat to activism. That needs to change.